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Why do we read the memoirs of famous people? To learn their secrets of success? To see the sordid underbelly of their lives and the price they've paid to get where they are, so that we can console ourselves about the relative sanity, or even nobility, of our more pedestrian lives? Just to revel, voyeuristically, in the sheer beauty and glamour that surrounds them?
None of those explain the pleasures offered by Nora Ephron's 2006 light-heartedly morose musings on her life, I Feel Bad About My Neck.
Ephron, the sixty-seven-year-old journalist, film director, and Academy Award-nominated screenwriter (Sleepless in Seattle, When Harry Met Sally, Silkwood) started out rich, privileged, and connected, growing up in New York City and Beverly Hills with parents who were successful writers, so there's not much about her journey that's instructive for most of us. And she doesn't seem to have sacrificed a lot to get where she is: along the way there are a couple of disappointing marriages and a handbag or two that weren't quite right, but no permanent damage to her soul. Nor is she a celebrity in the Angelina Jolie sense: we wouldn't buy People magazine just to find out how she lost a few pounds or to knock ourselves out with how beautiful her babies are.
Maybe then, the appeal of this book is the somewhat disappointing but oddly satisfying message that the rich and prominent are just as dull as we are, consumed with the same unfortunate trials of life: wrinkles, bad hair days, unfaithful husbands, and the death of friends; and that having more money takes the edge off some of those trials, but cannot, ultimately, save one from them.
This book seesaws between the cozy girl-talk of inclusiveness and the reminders that her life is not, in fact, like yours. She enjoys the humor of belaboring the trivial and the mundane: How do you find the right purse for all occasions? How many items should you serve at dinner? Why must we buy different lotions and creams for our arms, legs, faces, and feet? Why do we have to get manicures all the time?
And then--wait a minute--we don't have to. It is a safe bet that most women couldn't afford manicures as often as she gets them, nor could they afford the constant rounds of what Ephron calls "maintenance" – the hair coloring and blow-drying and pedicures and sessions with personal trainers that she says have to be done with regularity just to keep everything from falling apart. Not to mention--although she does--the more occasional "needs" for Botox, facelifts, major dental work, and the removal of skin tags and other harmless signs of aging that afflict the vain.
At times, it seems that Ephron could have called her memoir, "Thoughts on being a Woman that Probably Don't Apply to You." She presents herself as a working woman with an imperfect and deteriorating body, disappointments and betrayals in her love life, and some amusing challenges in learning to cook, be a decent parent, and take care of herself, just like the rest of us . . . but it's a tease. She is not everywoman. Not unless everywoman receives repeated invitations to travel on the private yachts of friends and turns down those invitations not because she has to work or can't afford the cruise-wear, but because she can't imagine the inconvenience of having to do one's own hair while aboard a boat.
Two of the most entertaining sections of the book were beautifully edited into New Yorker essays over the last few years. One was her set piece on finding and keeping a glorious eight-room apartment in the Astor-built Apthorp building on the Upper West Side, even as rents rise 400% in three years; fistfights break out among the neighbors over the placement of bicycles; fires, burglaries, and ulterior-motived renovations go on all around; Rosie O'Donnell (whom Ephron identifies as a friend) moves in, wreaks havoc, and to Ephron's amazement--how could anyone let go of a foothold in Heaven?--moves out; and "key money," the under-the-table cash paid by wannabe tenants to building superintendents, people who are moving out, and anyone else who might be able to provide an inside track on apartments about to be vacated--rises from the $24,000 Ephron paid in 1980 to the $285,000 paid by a neighbor some years later. To those who have never lived in New York City, who may think that finding a decent place to live is an ordinary business deal within the reach of anyone with a steady income, this story may stretch the limits of credulity. I am here to tell you it's all true, and that Ephron's personal and detailed account of it all will stand as a classic insider look at Manhattan real estate in the 1980s. If the current economic crisis ends up changing anything fundamental about the way that people acquire and pay for their homes, then Ephron's story will become an even more valuable snapshot of the rental market in its heyday.
The other excerpted essay was a celebration of the joys of cooking, eating, and idolizing celebrity chefs. During my own years in Manhattan, the paying of rent didn't leave much over for food, so I will admit to a less-than-excited reading of this section, and yet it is quite likely that, for those who like this sort of thing, this is exactly the sort of thing they will like. The fetishizing of food and wine into a hobby/obsession seems still to be growing, all across the country. (As further testament to her own love of the topic, Ephron made her alter ego, played by Meryl Streep, in the 1986 film Heartburn, a food writer by profession.)
Again, Ephron is somewhat like the rest of us--she worries and frets over what to serve at dinner parties and she struggles with maintaining her weight while developing her skill as a cook--and in other ways, she is not like us at all. She develops an interest in the writings of Craig Claiborne, then a hero-worship, and then a full-blown fantasy life involving Craig, herself, and some exquisitely cooked delicacies . . . then she meets him, he invites her over for dinner, and she reciprocates. Later, she becomes friends with the food and design superstar Lee Bailey and slavishly adopts his decorating schemes and menu-planning techniques. Her specific fantasies may or may not do anything for you, but the book teases you into thinking about what your life would be like if your own deepest desires--menu-related or not--were so easily made real.
The source of much of Ephron's humor is the bursting of bubbles regarding glamour. Yes, she's in a position to have dinner with Craig Claiborne after a period of obsessing about him. But it turns out he's dull, once you get to know him. Yes, she can pay for any cosmetic enhancements and personal services she wants, but she can't stop her neck from getting saggy. Her summary of taking care of her aging body is this: "After a certain point, it's just patch, patch, patch." Yes, life is easier for the rich, but it's still life.
Ephron herself narrates the audio version of this book (available, unabridged, from Random House Audio) and she is, naturally, a clear and mostly amusing reader of her own work. However, her tone is so consistently sardonic, full of heavy self-deprecation delivered in a staccato rhythm, that the tale can feel monotonous. There is virtually no variation in her delivery no matter what the content. At times, the even-keeled, dry-humored delivery feels just right for the material; at others, though, one wishes for an actor with more range.
© First Serial rights 2009 Heather C. Liston
Heather Liston is a free lance writer based in San Francisco