I Feel Bad About My Neck
by Nora Ephron

Alfred A. Knopf, 2006. ISBN 0307264556.
Reviewed by Duffie Bart
Posted on 10/18/2006

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: Elders

I Feel Bad About My Neck, Nora Ephron's slim new book of personal anecdotes is as much fun to read as her wonderful films (i.e., "When Harry Met Sally", "Sleepless in Seattle", "You've Got Mail") are fun to watch. She has the phenonomenal skill to take the grist of her daily life and present it with a sense of the ridiculous...the ridiculous often pointing back to her own staunch, often self-deprecating and honest opinions and compulsions.

With her keen sense of the comedic, I Feel Bad About My Neck delineates, as the title makes clear, her distress over what is happening to her as she ages: the wrinkles in her neck, her deteriorating eyesight, the inordinate length of time required to maintain her attractive appearance. The time and attention she pours into her efforts reveal what her life is really like, her struggles, why she adores living in Manhattan, on the Upper West Side, in a famous Manhattan apartment building she calls the Apthorp. Until, after many mostly happy years, she decides to move. We then learn that the Apthorp is less than the idyllic retreat she once believed it to be. That it has mice, that the tap water is brown, that deliverymen are not allowed beyond the groundfloor courtyard and, perhaps worst of all, the heartache of her ever-climbing monthly rent...ultimately prohibitive, even for her.

She relocates to an apartment on the Upper East Side and is surprised to find herself happy there. The new advantages, she sounds relieved to tell us, are many. First of all, the deliverymen do get beyond the courtyard (this building actually doesn't have a courtyard); they can bring her Chinese takeout right to her front door, blessing of blessings. Furthermore, all the conveniences so important to her are "right there" within a radius of two blocks from her apartment: the dry cleaner, the subway stop, the pharmacist, the supermarket, the cash machine, the deli, the beauty salon, the nail place, the newsstand, the place where she has lunch. Although she is able to indulge her somewhat lavish habits to a somewhat greater degree (understatement, unfortunately) than her average reader, I suspect there isn't a woman alive who doesn't chuckle and identify with her hilarious complaints, and the running commentary on the vicissitudes of her daily life.

Finding a writer who can make me laugh from first page to last is both a treasure and all too sadly rare. Clearly, I am not alone since the book lost no time in appearing on the New York Times bestseller list. But I do shake my head at some of her admissions. For example, while I too am abundantly vain, I would shave my head before going to the hairdresser twice a week as she claims to do. ("So, twice a week, I go to a beauty salon and have my hair blown dry. It's cheaper by far than psychoanalysis and much more uplifting.") When it comes to exercise, we are similar. Swimming, she tells us, is not an option for her (or me). And the hilarious explanation she gives for this aversion is reason enough to buy the book.

Another divergence between us is her willingness to endure the torture of having highlights put in her hair after she submits to the already interminable process of hair coloring...which she admits is indeed torture, but the results are, of course, so flattering. Furthermore, she pays careful attention to the care of her fingernails, her toenails, the waxing of unwanted hair, the endless care, as I have already mentioned, of the hair on top of her head, the complex care of her skin with creams and lotions that require the knowledge of a chemist and the bank account of a Saudi oil potentate...to name just a few of the tasks in her fastidious regimen. Her goal, she explains, is to feel secure about her appearance were she to run to the supermarket and bump into an old boyfriend (whom she paradoxically tells us she would not recognize).

It is all written in an offhanded, "I don't really mean it" kind of style. She seems to dismiss the ludicrousness of how she describes her life, on the one hand, while apparently subscribing to it on the other. It is hard to know how much to believe, but the fun of the book is clearly not in its truth but rather in its style. Often, I sincerely sympathize. How can I not sympathize with her lament that she can no longer decipher the tiny print of maps and phone books. Gradually deteriorating eyesight cannot be taken lightly, though it does help to read about it while laughing at the same time.

Most important perhaps is that I am somewhat lacking in sympathy with Ms. Ephron's main thesis: the horrors of aging. I am one of those women who exasperate her. She writes: "Every so often I read a book about age, and whoever's writing it says it's great to be old. It's great to be wise and sage and mellow; it's great to be at the point where you understand just what matters in life. I can't stand people who say things like this. What can they be thinking? Don't they have necks?"

And my answer to her is: Well yes, I do have a neck...and it is certainly wrinkled...at 73 I've had many years to get used to it. But, for me, my wrinkles, as those women who write about aging suggest, are indeed trumped by my better understanding of "what matters in life." And that is simply a difference in the lebensanschauung (outlook on life) between the amusing Ms. Ephron and myself.

Her book's format is similar to that of a personal journal. Brief chapters on her search for a purse that is more than "...just a big dark hole full of stuff that you spend hours fishing around for," her experience as an intern at the White House (the only intern JFK did not sleep with), her love of reading, a chapter she calls "On Rapture," mentioning specific books for those interested in her taste in books (which I am). She also writes about the death of her best friend, Judy, and the depth of her grief surrounding this monumental loss. She is an interesting woman, Nora Ephron, and I am sorry the book is so brief. She hops from one quotidienne subject to the next, and I am never quite sure if she is writing factually from her life or, more likely, embellishing her prose creatively for the sake of humor. But it does not matter.

Which leads me to one of my favorite moments in the book, a quote ascribed to E.L. Doctorow: "I am led to the proposition that there is no fiction or nonfiction as we commonly understand the distinction; there is only narrative." What an illuminating, freeing thought! And one it is good to remember when reading this book.

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