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What Nora Ephron knew about heartbreak

“Heartburn” is a guide to being the hero of your own story

Nora Ephron, who passed away in 2012, and the cover of ”Heartburn."Michael Lionstar/Vintage

It was fall of 2021, and I was experiencing the special indignity of being dumped by someone I wasn’t even really dating. Never mind that he was terrible: vain, fussy, an Englishman with a fake posh accent (he was from Yorkshire) and a need to make sure everyone knew he spoke French. I was smitten.

He had come to Berlin, where I lived, from London, where he lived. He took me to an experimental opera about climate change and then, as we sat together on the sofa of my Prenzlauer Berg sublet, announced that he “just didn’t feel it.” I sobbed on his chest as he ran his hands through my hair and, bored, mused about how he’d redo my living room (“The piano goes just there.”).

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He left me with a copy of Italian Architectural Digest and a pit of grief behind my sternum. It wasn’t, of course, really about him. Even then, as I was hoping he’d reconsider, I knew I had made a compromise of style over substance, that in pursuing him I was selling some essential part of myself desperately short. That was, maybe, what hurt.

I sent my friend Maggie a long, plaintive email. “I just feel totally lost,” I wrote. I wanted so badly to be on her sofa in DC, laughing and crying at the same time. What was I doing in cold Berlin, a freelance writer with no money or job prospects, rejected by a man who was mean about his family and believed that using certain fonts made you irredeemably déclassé?

Maggie replied immediately, with the kind of email that makes you feel known and loved. And then she asked: had I read “Heartburn” yet? As if it were an established step in the breakup process.

I bought a 2-euro beer from a kiosk, and sat in the chill on the Admiralbrücke. I pulled up the book on my phone, and read the whole thing as the light went down.

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The novel is a lightly fictionalized account of the dissolution of Nora Ephron’s marriage to Carl Bernstein, who was having an affair. It should be miserable but it’s gaspingly funny.

“Everything is copy” is Ephron’s famous dictum, and while Bernstein might have betrayed her, she won, because she got to write the line: “The man is capable of having sex with a venetian blind.” It’s a model of how to alchemize humiliation and grief into something else.

That is Ephron’s best lesson, about time and storytelling. How, when the bad thing happens, it isn’t funny. But then you tell the story enough times, and eventually it is.