I Feel Bad About My Neck: and Other Thoughts On Being a Woman | Nora Ephron (Knopf)

At 22, writes Nora Ephron in an essay from her new collection, I Feel Bad About My Neck, she achieved her dream of being a reporter. And then, she says, “My life changes: I write a magazine article about having small breasts. I am now a writer.”

Three decades later, Ephron is writing about her neck. That disappoints me. You could argue that the subjects are the same: at 30 you write about your breasts; in your 60s, your neck. That’s what she feels bad about, it’s in the title–can’t she write about what she feels bad about? A book about a wrinkly neck is really about aging, which is about death, the book’s true subject. And don’t I do what she says every older woman does when alone with a mirror, which is pull the facial skin toward her ears to see her younger self?

But Ephron has missed the politics of her neck. Necks are important, she says, because they reveal age the way faces and hair, which can be Botoxed and dyed, respectively, don’t. “Our faces are lies and our necks are the truth. You have to cut open a redwood tree to see how old it is, but you wouldn’t have to if it had a neck.” She’s clever and fun, but nowhere does she talk about the gender of wrinkles, about how jowls and creases, like graying temples and permanently furrowed brows, give a man gravitas. Think of Walter Cronkite. What he regrets is not his neck, but having retired too early.

“A Few Words About Breasts”–first published in 1972 and reprinted in Ephron’s celebrated 1975 collection, Crazy Salad–isn’t overtly political, but it explores, among other issues, the effects of growing up a tomboy in the 50s. It’s also amusing and outrageous, especially when she quotes her busty would-be mother-in-law, who advises her to get on top during sex so her breasts will look bigger. Ephron is struggling in this piece, and not just with her chest. It’s a battle of mind over matter, and mind is losing. She has heard the laments of larger-breasted women who say she’s lucky. “I have thought about their remarks,” she concludes, “tried to put myself in their place, considered their point of view. I think they are full of shit.” The title piece in the new book ends similarly: “I honestly do understand just what matters

in life. But guess what? It’s my neck.” But nowhere does she grapple with the reasons why her neck shouldn’t bother her.

Ephron’s early career placed her squarely in the pantheon of New Journalists, alongside Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson, Joan Didion, and Gay Talese. Her reportage was witty; her voice rang out clearly in every story. She went on to write a best-selling novel, Heartburn, and to write or coauthor the screenplays for Silkwood, When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, and You’ve Got Mail. Her essays and journalism have aged well, and are delights to reread. The large number of interviews she used to do is apparent in a 1973 story on the Pillsbury Bake-Off (also in Crazy Salad), and the range of quotes gives eccentric heft to the article. An in-depth piece on the rise and decline of the FDS feminine hygiene empire includes a “short but gamy section” about how vulval odor is tested and rated.

This, Ephron’s first essay collection in years, is already a best seller. She says she wrote it because of her dissatisfaction with other women’s books on aging: “Why do people write books that say it’s better to be older than to be younger? It’s not better.” But not everyone says that. There’s Doris Grumbach, for instance. In her 1991 memoir Coming Into the End Zone, Grumbach, at 70, takes stock of her body, and, lo and behold, the serious intellectual inventories “the heavy rings that encircle my neck like Ubangi jewelry.

“There is nothing lovely about the sight of me,” she continues. “Shall I try to learn to love what I am left with? I wonder. It would be easier to resolve never again to look into a full-length mirror.”

Ephron does look, and what’s more, she revises. She gets manicures and pedicures, has eyebrow and lip hair removed, tries Botox, gets something done to her teeth that requires $20,000, and continues to seek a skin cream that works. She gets her hair done twice a week, she says, because she can’t handle a blow-dryer. And she dyes. Everyone on the coasts dyes.

Like older Woody Allen movies, the book is an ode to a certain segment and idea of Manhattan. “The events of September 11 forced me to confront the fact that no matter what, I live here and always will,” Ephron writes in “Where I Live.” Next sentence: “One of my favorite things about New York is that you can pick up the phone and order anything and someone will deliver it to you.”

That’s it? Maybe she thought there was no reason to tread well-worn ground. But moving from the Twin Towers to takeout is, well, glib.

“The personal is political,” was the 20th-century feminist credo. But here it seems that to Ephron the political has become personal, and the personal is more often than not material. Thus the essay “I Hate My Purse,” a piece in the new book on her problems finding a decent purse and her “ongoing failure to handle the obligations of a demanding and difficult accessory.” No deeper meaning here: a purse is sometimes just a purse.

She used to write about ideas– a feminist ambivalent about sloughing off her individuality for the sake of the movement. Here, though she told the packed house at a recent Chicago appearance that the book is feminist because it’s “about empowering yourself as an older woman,” she mostly leaves any feminist or political analysis at the door. For something resembling political, you have to read her entries online at the Huffington Post. A piece about the recent death of her best friend doesn’t grab the heart the way a 1975 essay about her mother’s death (and her mink coat) did.

A layer is missing–of self-scrutiny, emotion, or reportage, at which she used to excel.

In writing of her neck she mentions surgery above her collarbone but doesn’t tell what it was for. To remove a mole? Thyroid? A malignancy? It matters.

The younger Ephron would have told.