By Margaret Sullivan
NEWS BOOK REVIEWER
It’s very hard, of course, not to compare the short essays of Delia Ephron to those of her more famous sister, Nora. It’s even harder now that Nora Ephron has died (last year, far too young, of cancer), thus attaining an even more golden aura than she had before, if that’s possible.
But it’s also unfair, because Delia Ephron’s essays stand on their own quite well, thank you. And, at times – when she is exploring her disturbing upbringing by hard-drinking Hollywood screen-writing parents – this younger sister goes deeper and darker than her usual light touch would lead us to expect.
In an essay titled “Why I Can’t Write About My Mother,” she does what she says she can’t do, but she does it obliquely and with considerable pain. She deconstructs, for example, the famous words uttered to Nora when their mother was on her deathbed, stomach distended from cirrhosis: “Take notes.” Nora’s retelling made the maternal command funny, wise and instantly classic.
Delia takes a harder look, calling those words “a ruthless deathbed directive, cold and unsentimental.” She writes: “Imagine all the conversations a mother on her deathbed might want to have with her daughter, all the possible affections that might be tendered, imagine what you might say to your own daughter, and then think, This is what she said.”
The strongest essay in a worthwhile collection, this look at Delia Ephron’s alcoholic, talented and ultimately stone-cold mother is one of the most honest and heartbreaking pieces of writing I can think of. And it is very much her own.
The author’s lighter side, too, has an appeal of its own. In “Bakeries,” she manages to give us a sweet tour of the best baked goods in Manhattan, and to veer into whether it’s possible for women to have it all, and circle around to what really defines happiness. Maybe, she concludes, happiness is those small moments of perfection that might very well include “the intoxicating aroma of fresh bread,” or the sight of “apricot cookies with scalloped edges.” Like an essay by E.B. White – he was a master of the form – it starts in one place, takes us by the hand to meander about, and leads us right back to the start. In a word: charming.
The collection begins and ends with pieces about Nora – bookends of loss. The first is a straight-on piece about her illness and death, “Losing Nora,” the second a reminiscence of the creative work that the sisters shared, “Collaboration.” In each, she confronts the competition between herself and Nora (extending it, at times, to all four of the writing Ephron sisters, including Hallie and Amy): “With sisters is the competitive always marching side by side with the devotion? Does it get to be pure love when one of them is dying or is there always the beast hidden somewhere?”
Through this, a new portrait of Nora Ephron emerges: brilliant and generous, but also hard to please, imperious and frustrating. These personal qualities emerged in the older sister’s writing, as well – “Her toughness, her take-no-prisoners, her ‘I will throw you under the bus for a good story,’ something she admitted to – that ruthless honesty was the talent and terror of her.” (Think of Nora Ephron’s novel and then movie, “Heartburn,” which took the pain of her then-husband Carl Bernstein’s affair and, through the alchemy of a writer’s revenge, portrayed him as a cad for the ages.)
Ultimately, Delia’s respect for her sister’s talent comes shining through: “When I was younger, I fancied or joked that she was moving so fast because she knew that I was on her trail, but really she was simply a thoroughbred, born and bred to race and win. She was the filly who won the Kentucky Derby.”
The final piece, “Collaboration,” reminds us, quite pointedly, that the younger sister was very much a part of some of Nora Ephron’s screenwriting triumphs, from “Sleepless in Seattle” (though she is not officially credited) to “You’ve Got Mail,” and more. And then there was the off-Broadway show, “Love, Loss, and What I Wore,” which the sisters liked to call “The Vagina Monologues” without the vaginas, and which, the author recounts, was 14 years in the making and was attended almost exclusively by women – lucky gals.
Delia Ephron’s writing here is cozy, a little dashed-off, often funny. It is not always elegant or disciplined. No gourmet meal, it is more like a buttered biscuit and a hot cup of tea on a blustery day. And in its honesty and directness, its willingness to face the darkness, it sometimes achieves a surprising depth.
Sister Mother Husband Dog (etc.)
By Delia Ephron
Blue Rider Press
224 pages, $24.95
Margaret Sullivan is the former editor-in-chief of The Buffalo News and the current public editor of the New York Times.