Ephron's (unadmitted) importance of being earnest

Review Essays

August 27, 2006|By Susan Salter Reynolds | Susan Salter Reynolds,LOS ANGELES TIMES

I Feel Bad About My Neck and Other Thoughts on Being a Woman

Nora Ephron

Alfred A. Knopf / 140 pages / $19.95

Maybe she makes you laugh; maybe she bugs you. Maybe you like the movies she wrote or co-wrote (Sleepless in Seattle, When Harry Met Sally, Silkwood, Heartburn) or maybe they're too cute. Maybe her problems seem silly, the petty annoyances of the overprivileged and overeducated. Maybe she seems dated because the age of the unapologetic New Yorker who rarely travels beyond the Hudson is dead, or at least irrelevant.

Then again, maybe Nora Ephron has become timeless, the 2006 version of the Earth Mother (a moniker that very possibly would make her retch). Certainly she writes, for all her funny commentary on modern life, like someone who has something useful and important to tell her readers. Which is to say there's something earnest at the heart of Ephron's writing, always has been, and it's probably the last thing she'd ever want to acknowledge.

In her milieu and time (she began her journalism career by parodying the New York Post during the 1962-1963 newspaper strike; the Post hired her at once), "earnest" was the kiss of death. "Funny" got the message home, be it that you can't trust the government or that marriage can cause unbearable pain or that when people you love die it's almost impossible to go on but you must, if only because they'd want you to.

Look, Ephron's parents killed themselves with alcohol. Her second husband cheated on her when she was pregnant with their child, she's been divorced twice, and that's just the beginning of her life story, which she's not been shy about telling. But you never feel she's using her readers for therapy; rather, she's figured something out that she wants to let you in on, and to make it palatable she'll make you laugh.

Most of these essays are about aging (not gracefully). In some, Ephron sounds like Eloise in a manic snit: She hates her neck and her purse and finds the maintenance needed to go out in public (in New York, anyway) overwhelming. There is much good information here on things like Kelly bags, leg waxing and threading ("a fantastic and thrilling method of hair removal").

But there are also some (uncharacteristically upbeat) essays about things Ephron loves: the apartment in the Apthorp on Broadway and 79th Street where she lived for about 20 years, journalism ("I can't understand why anyone would write fiction when what actually happens is so amazing"), Dr. Hauschka's bath oil and Bill Clinton (a relationship that soured over time). She puzzles over the past. (Why was she "probably the only" female intern in the JFK White House in 1961 he did not make a pass at? Was it because she's Jewish?) She offers advice in digestible bits: "Buy, don't rent." "The empty nest is underrated." "You can't be friends with people who call after 11 p.m."

It is hard for funny people to let go of irony and be vulnerable, especially in print. What we have in these essays is Ephron in her 60s, a woman whose friends are starting to die, who can't - no matter how hard she fights or how clever she is - control everything. Hair color, yes; neck, no. Life, yes; death, no.

Susan Salter Reynolds is a Los Angeles Times staff writer.

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