Nora Ephron’s Sublime Wit Trained on Loss and Regret

081406 article book shapiro Nora Ephron’s Sublime Wit  Trained on Loss and RegretThis is a book about age and regret. Since it’s by Nora Ephron, it’s funny. A funny book about loss is a puzzle, and it’s that puzzle that I, if not the author, tussle with in reading this delightful, maddening collection of personal essays whose wit is sublime and whose concerns are sometimes reduced to the ridiculous.

The title threw me: Nora Ephron has a beautiful neck, a long neck. She’s a swan. Then I read the title piece: Now in her 60’s, Ms. Ephron has acquired a scar above her collarbone, but, mainly, it’s her throat that makes her feel bad. It has become crêpey, saggy, wattled. Writing these essays like a Joan Rivers with better values, she deplores having to bear the signs of age, the maintenance required to counteract them, and the impossibility of succeeding in counteracting them. She likewise deplores those who would say such losses are made up for by wisdom gained, and deploys a fair amount of wisdom anyway on subjects ranging from parenthood to home decoration and handbags. Along the way, some losses are even revealed to be no such thing, as in this deadpan nugget: “The empty nest is underrated.”

One could say: Hey, we all have to put up with decline—what’s she complaining about? It would be especially easy to feel enviously grudging reading “The Story of My Life in 3,500 words or Less,” which telegraphs a history that’s a string of triumphs, from winning first prize in high school for an essay on “Why I Want to Be a Journalist” to becoming one on first try—at 22—to writing a best-seller upon turning to fiction, then writing the screenplay for the cultural landmark When Harry Met Sally (1989).

But Ms. Ephron disarms jealousy by mocking her own anguish in a style that veers between hey-girlfriend coziness and wit that has everything to do with good writing. Her sentences are informed as much by Randall Jarrell as by shtick—sentences like “You have to cut a redwood tree open to see how old it is, but you wouldn’t have to if it had a neck.”

So that string of triumphs is, in the girlfriend mode, cast as victories snatched by luck from the jaws of defeat, or at least insecurity: She won the essay prize only after the teacher nixed her lead; the best-seller came from the despair of being betrayed by an adored husband in her seventh month of pregnancy; and the cultural landmark was the distillation of youthful fears and loneliness. She seems always to be saying, “I’m just one of the girls.”

She brings the skills of a novelist to this claim, so you do identify, even if your accommodations to femininity take different forms. I’m not the kind of person whose pocketbook is full of capless lipsticks, loose Tic Tacs or gray-bristled toothbrushes (all this from “I Hate My Purse”), but I recognize “tampons that have come loose from their wrappings” and “Kleenexes that either have or have not been used but there’s no way to be sure one way or another”—even as I protest against the accuracy of what she’s writing. (She’s admitted defeat; I’m still battling.)

Likewise, my medicine cabinet is not full of expensive face creams, partly because they’re expensive but mostly because, until the laboratories can give me something that mimics what elastin did for my face, I don’t want to be gulled by the hope of even small improvement. I don’t spend the eight hours a week on exercise, tweezing, manicure and so on (catalogued with exasperation but also breezy satisfaction in “On Maintenance”), but I’d probably be glad to have a hair-threader (and time to devote to all those activities), though my experience with a pedicurist named Olga (“Tsk, tsk, tsk, vy you no push down cuticle?”) put me off that little luxury.

The point is, Ms. Ephron has me in her pocket. I’m absolutely on her side and feel that she’s on mine, that we’re in this together.

As, indeed, we all are. But I experience a kind of double vision, or impatient disappointment, when I read some of these essays, not because of their funniness and warmth and zingily brilliant observation, but because someone this smart knows she’s not just writing about vanity or even grief—as when she registers her biggest losses, to death, in “Considering the Alternative.” What she’s really writing about is the insult to our identity that we suffer when we see that unfamiliar face in the mirror—pouchy, crumpling—a face that’s too strong and exaggerated to be our own, and that also seems to have, with all those dark, complicated areas, too many features. It’s different as well as worse: It’s not who we are.

She writes about regret throughout these pieces (“Je regrette beaucoup,” she wonderfully says in “Considering the Alternative”), but I felt frustrated at the insistence on jokiness that forced this truly smart woman into a pose of superficiality. The unbearable thing is for life to get worse. It’s not a matter of what things are in themselves (pretty much okay, not so bad, better than for some people, for almost all people), but for life to be worse today than it was yesterday. I’m not asking her to be Susan Sontag, but I don’t want the woman who wrote Scribble Scribble (1978)—and who was one of the first women to direct pictures in Hollywood—to pretend to be Erma Bombeck either, even just for a sentence here and there, and certainly not for a freelancer’s fee.

Is it that these pieces were for magazines that won’t allow a serious idea through the door? Maybe not. Two of the best, “Serial Monogamy: A Memoir” and “Moving On” (canny about the New York obsessions of real estate and styles of cooking, respectively), were first published The New Yorker—and still I wanted more. On the other hand, two of the pieces that to me represent Nora Ephron at her best take the pose of the miffed would-be girlfriend—someone who has only affectional concerns—to comment on larger matters. Both were New York Times Op-Ed pieces.

Interestingly, I only remembered the shocker from “Me and JFK,” the piece on Kennedy’s affair with White House aide Mimi Fahnestock that first appeared, in slightly altered form, in The Times (“think about that long, long list of women JFK slept with. Were any of them Jewish? I don’t think so”), and not the final sentences, so rich, so superb: “And now, like Mimi Fahnestock, I will have no further comment on this subject. I request that the media respect my privacy and that of my family.” The other Op-Ed piece is a reproach to Bill Clinton for failing to speak out against the war in Iraq, a reproach so oblique and take-back-your-mink-ish in tone that, in contrast to the offense, it has the power of a mallet.

Ms. Ephron has done reporting, fabulously, and she’s used material from her own past for fiction. In her under-3,500-word autobiography, she quotes E.L. Doctorow: “[T]here is no fiction or nonfiction … there is only narrative.” Whether fiction or non-, however, her wonderful, entertaining narratives lose the kick of seriousness when the subject is your pal Nora Ephron, but I suspect it doesn’t have to be that way—if she lives and writes long enough. “On Rapture” is a lovable paean to reading novels, and yet in “The Lost Strudel or Le Strudel Perdu,” she admits that she can never get past the first chapter of Proust. Remembrance of Things Past! An encyclopedia of loss—and of a cherishing, akin to regret, of all that time sweeps away. Nora! Don’t start with the first chapter! Start with the third volume: It’s a circular novel, it won’t matter. You’ll love it, trust me.

Anna Shapiro writes about reading, Remembrance of Things Past and cooking in her collection of essays A Feast of Words (W.W. Norton). Her most recent book is the novel Living on Air (Soho).