The Magazine

Skin Deep

Age and beauty, the Hollywood way.

Feb 19, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 22 • By CHARLOTTE ALLEN
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Yes, it is refreshing to note that many of the prosperous ladies of middle years who attend Ephron's readings and then stand in line to have I Feel Bad About My Neck autographed will be unpleasantly surprised to discover that Lusty Menopause Lit it is not. Nora Ephron is the anti-Gail Sheehy: "If you're lucky enough to be in a sexual relationship, you're not going to have the sex you once had," she warns.

This is not to say that I Feel Bad About My Neck is a book one ought to rush out and buy. For one thing, it's a chisel, pricewise--160 rather small pages of rather large print for $19.95. That works out to around 15 cents a page, and most of those pages have already appeared elsewhere, at better value: in O, Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, the New York Times op-ed page. If you subscribe to the New Yorker you will have already read--and wondered why you read--"Serial Monogamy: A Memoir," an account not, as you might hope, of Ephron's three marriages--including the second and juiciest one, to the flamboyantly adulterous Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein--but of her culinary thralldom to several chefs whose names were apparently household words in Manhattan back in the 1960s and '70s when Ephron was young, but are blanks today.

This "Lee Bailey" at whose trendy behest Ephron threw out all her dinner plates and napkins so as to buy beige tableware identical to his at Henri Bendel--who was he? The New Yorker also originally ran "Moving On," in which Ephron complains lugubriously about the day her five-bedroom, two-fireplace Upper West Side apartment became rent-decontrolled and she learned that the $2,500-a-month rent she had been paying would increase substantially. Imagine such a hardship for a multimillionaire screenwriter!

I myself have always found that a very little of Nora Ephron's endlessly wisecracking, name-dropping, and self-obsessed prose can go a very long way. The characters in When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle struck me as not so much human beings as meat puppets for Ephron one-liners who were predestined by the films' creaky plots to fall into each others' arms. I couldn't get past the first 10 brittle pages of Heartburn, Ephron's bestselling roman à clef about the marriage to Bernstein. As for her Upper West Side politics, the less said the better; suffice it to say that George W. Bush is responsible for dead people, and Bill Clinton fooled around with Monica Lewinsky--but darn, he's so cute.

Still, I Feel Bad About My Neck packs a punch. Underneath the jokes, it is a dark, merciless book. It holds a mirror to a culture in which there is absolutely nothing beyond the self, and the expensive things that the self might acquire and the ineluctable fact that, for all those things, the self is helpless against old age and death. Dignified old age? The decay of one's looks is the least of it: "Even if you have all your marbles, you're constantly reaching for the name of the person you met the day before yesterday," she writes. "Even if you're in great shape, you can't chop an onion the way you used to and you can't ride a bicycle several miles without becoming a candidate for traction. If you work, you're surrounded by young people who are plugged into the marketplace, the demographic, the zeitgeist; they want your job and someday soon they're going to get it."

It's the converse of the Cosmo Girl ethos, where the body, slaved over and pampered, can be used; here, the body, slaved over and pampered, works against you, over and over, and in ever more sickening and frightening ways.

"I am dancing around the D word," Ephron writes. Relentlessly, too.

In a matter-of-fact paragraph, she describes how, when her mother was dying of cirrhosis, her father decided it was time for her to go, and fed her a bunch of sleeping pills. Then he asked his daughter to flush the rest of them down the toilet. That was all there was. In the literature of the Middle Ages (François Villon's Testament comes to mind), the hideous old woman who had once been young and beautiful was a stock figure, but she served a moral purpose, to remind one of the futility of living only for pleasure.

In I Feel Bad About My Neck the hideous old woman is there--or would be, Ephron surmises, without the frantic, costly regime of "maintenance"--as is the futility and the living only for pleasure. The moral purpose, however, is entirely absent. This book is a memento mori, and the thing to be remembered is nothingness once the body goes.

Charlotte Allen is the author, most recently, of The Human Christ.