TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. When it came out in 1983, Nora Ephron's comic novel "Heartburn" became an instant bestseller and the literary embodiment of the phrase, writing well is the best revenge. A 40th anniversary edition has just been published. Our book critic, Maureen Corrigan, has an appreciation and a review of a new comic novel called "Pineapple Street," whose humor, Maureen says, has a 21st-century edge.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: I met a good friend for dinner the other night and told her I was rereading Nora Ephron's novel "Heartburn," which has just come out in a 40th anniversary edition. I'm so pissed off, this friend said, echoing Meryl Streep's words at Ephron's memorial service in 2012. Why isn't she still here?
My friend and I locked eyes over our margaritas and nodded. We didn't have to tick off all the ways we needed Ephron's tough wit to help us through things. It's sentimental to say so, but when such a beloved writer's voice is stilled, you really do feel more alone, less armored against the world.
I've read "Heartburn" three times since it came out in 1983. Some of its jokes haven't aged well such as wisecracks about lesbians and Japanese men with cameras. But the pain that underlies its humor is as fresh as a paper cut. For those who don't know the novel, "Heartburn" takes place mostly in an elite Washington, D.C., world of journalists and politicians and is a roman a clef about the breakup of Ephron's marriage to reporter Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame.
The year was 1979, and Ephron was pregnant with the couple's second child when she discovered Bernstein was having an affair with Margaret Jay, the then-wife of the then-British ambassador. In "Heartburn," her character is famously skewered as a fairly tall person with a neck as long as an arm and a nose as long as a thumb.
Everyone who's read "Heartburn" or seen the movie with Meryl Streep playing Ephron's fictional alter ego, cookbook author Rachel Samstat, remembers the climactic dinner party scene where Rachel throws a key lime pie at the face of her cheating husband. In real life, Ephron poured a bottle of red wine over Bernstein's head. It's as though Ephron, herself the child of two golden-age Hollywood screenwriters, took one of the oldest cliches in comedy, the pie in the face, and updated it to be a symbol of second-wave feminist fed-up-ed-ness (ph).
But what precedes that moment is anguish. In that climactic scene, Rachel thinks this about her husband, who's sitting across the table from her - I still love you. I still find you interesting. But someday I won't anymore. And in the meantime, I'm getting out. I am no beauty, and I am terrified of being alone. But I would rather die than sit here and pretend it's OK. I would rather die than sit here figuring out how to get you to love me again. I can't stand sitting here with all this rage turning to hurt and then to tears.
Like her idol, Dorothy Parker, Ephron knew that the greatest comedy arises out of finding ironic distance and therefore control over the things that make us wince, cry, despair. Ephron left us not only that key lime pie recipe, but also her recipe for coping. And speaking of coping, for many of us readers, coping with late-winter blahs means reaching for a comic novel.
Not only classics like "Heartburn," but the work of new writers such as Jenny Jackson. Her debut novel, "Pineapple Street," is being likened to the work of another late, great, essentially comic writer, Laurie Colwin, because both focus on the foibles of old money families in New York City. That comparison is a bit overblown, but Jackson's "Pineapple Street" stands on its own as a smart comedy of manners.
This is an ensemble novel about members of the wealthy Stockton family that owns swaths of Brooklyn Heights and beyond. The most engaging plotline involves a daughter-in-law named Sasha, who hails from a merely middle-class background and struggles to fit in. When her in-laws come to dinner, for instance, their indifference to her food makes her feel like the lady at the Costco free-sample table trying to sell warm cubes of processed cheese.
Even the most insular characters in "Pineapple Street," however, are aware of their privilege. Humor, being topical and dependent on sharp observation of behavior and detail, needs to keep in step with changing times, as Jackson does here. But the shock of social recognition - the moment when a good writer transforms an everyday detail about cheese cubes into an observation about the casual cruelties of class hierarchy - remains as jolting as getting or throwing a pie in the face. Here's to being the thrower.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan is a professor of literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed the 40th anniversary edition of Nora Ephron's novel "Heartburn" and the new novel "Pineapple Street" by Jenny Jackson.
If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like this week's interviews with veterinarian Karen Fine, character actor Clancy Brown and Dr. Richard (ph) Nuila, who works in a hospital whose mission is to treat patients who are uninsured, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews. And I recommend subscribing to our weekly newsletter for free, written by our producers with behind-the-scenes stories, recommendations, and links to the week's interviews and reviews. You can subscribe at freshair.npr.org.
(SOUNDBITE OF BENNY CARTER'S "CHERRY")
GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Seth Kelley directed today's show. I am Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.