Fearless in everything except love, Molly is now dating a forty-four-yearold chiropractor. He’s comfortable, but safe. When Molly is assigned to write a piece about New York City romance “in the style of Nora Ephron,” she flunks out big-time. She can’t recognize romance. And she can’t recognize the one man who can go one-on-one with her, the one man who gets her. But with wit, charm, whip-smart humor, and Nora Ephron’s romantic comedies, Molly learns to open her heart and suppress her cynicism in this bright, achingly funny novel.
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What Nora Knew
When Deirdre Dolson left a note on my desk requesting my presence in her office at 2:00 sharp, my first thought was What did I do wrong? My second thought was Hey, maybe I’m getting a raise! But that thought didn’t last as long as the first one.
You may have read about Deirdre in the gossip columns—she employs a personal publicist to make sure you read about her. Good for business, she likes to say, but really, it’s just good for Deirdre. She’s the editor in chief of the online newsmagazine EyeSpy. Gossip! News! Pop Culture and Reviews! And the reason I have dental and a 401(k).
The note was written in Deirdre’s signature purple ink. Her other signature is her headache-inducing perfume. She wears it by the gallon. I couldn’t tell if Deirdre personally deposited the message on my chair or if it was dropped off by her assistant, Gavin. Deirdre’s assistants are always male. I’ve worked here four years now, since the year after my divorce, and in that time she’s been through half a dozen assistants, all male.
I got to the office around eleven, having written at home that morning. One of the perks of my job is you’re allowed to go off and be creative in other locales. Deirdre sees our main competitor as either Gawker or Jezebel; it’s hard to tell, but someone once told her that Gawker writers get to work at home, so now we get to do it, too.
When I walked in, ass-kissing, backstabbing Emily Lawler was sitting in her adjacent cubicle with her nose in a book. Usually, she’s poking her nose into my business. Emily has this really white skin and really dark hair and round, dark eyes. She looks like Snow White minus the dwarfs. After I stowed my purse in my file drawer, next to my backup heels and box of Lipton chicken-soup packets, Emily popped up, looming over me with that cutsie, sneery face of hers, and said, “Good thing you showed up before two,” which proves she didn’t have the decency to even pretend she didn’t read my note. “Gavin was asking where you were.”
“Oh, really?” I turned on my computer.
“I told him if there’s something Deirdre needed, that I’d be happy to help.” She smiled her fake sweet smile that’s not meant to be sweet, just fake.
“You’re a true pal, Emily.” I feigned intense typing to make my pal go away. “Must be nice to sit around reading all day.”
Emily’s got the all-time cushiest of cushy jobs. She writes book reviews for EyeSpy. She held up a novel, Larceny among Lovers. The cover had a cornball illustration of a man, in a trench coat and fedora, standing in a doorway and casting a shadow across a dead woman’s legs.
“This guy had to grow up with a lot of sisters,” she said, pointing to the author’s name. “He really understands women.”
“Isn’t that a crime book?”
“Criminals have sisters.”
“Emily, can I pay you to go away?”
“You wish,” she said and disappeared behind our mutual wall.
When I first started at EyeSpy, we all had actual offices. Now only Deirdre and the CFO have offices. About a year ago they knocked down walls, squeezed us together, and knocked off a full floor’s rent. The official party line was that an open plan would foster communication and encourage rapport, but all that really happened was now everyone sits at their desk listening to iPods, blocking out any distractions and each other.
Maybe Deirdre wanted to meet to tell me what a commendable job I was doing. We’d discuss moving my office; she’d say I deserved any cubicle of my choice. Maybe she was so thrilled with me that I could request my own column again. I do that a lot. Request a column. And maybe this time she’d say yes!
Before EyeSpy, I was writing for Hipp magazine, which was anything but. Hipp’s readership was decent until the magazine industry went into the toilet, and even after that it was still semidecent, but their readers are aging—more interested in hip replacements than hip nightclubs, a side effect of Hipp not converting to an online format. The good news was, the magazine was floundering enough that they pretty much let me do whatever I wanted, which is how I got to write a piece about a powerful, well-known, unnamed New York divorce attorney who cheated on his expense account and did unflattering impersonations of his clients.
Oh, and who’d recently dumped his journalist wife.
I still don’t know how Deirdre ended up reading the story—she must have been at her beauty salon or something—but she called me at Hipp and introduced herself. Like I wouldn’t know who she was!
“Loved your piece on Evan Naboshek,” she said. “You did to him what Nora Ephron did to Carl Bernstein.”
“Technically that piece wasn’t about my ex-husband; it was about—”
“Did you hear from him?”
“A cease-and-desist order, although it was too late to cease or desist because the piece was already published.”
“You’d think he’d be a smarter lawyer than that.”
She asked me to send her my résumé. To say I hung up the phone and wanted to knock out a few cartwheels would be an understatement.
For years, my résumé was a testament to hyperbole, exaggeration, and creative fiction. Two days after graduating college I moved to the city to be a famous writer, vowing to never end up in my family’s Long Island upholstery business. (Four generations of upholsterers—if you count my sister—a solid, successful business, and my worst nightmare.) Appalled to discover my journalism degree did not lead to offers to run the New York Times or write cover stories for Time magazine, I re-aimed my career goal to paying the rent.
I started with a job at Starbucks that came with a cute title but lousy pay. To compensate for the gaping hole in my budget, Barista Molly spent the next two years posing nude three nights a week at a SoHo art studio. I developed a talent for holding still without shifting or wobbling or needing to pee. During breaks I’d slip on my robe and walk from easel to easel to see how I’d turned out. Despite my lifelong desire to look mysterious and exotic, I am incorrigibly fresh-faced and all-American. Like somebody whose face belongs on a box of laundry detergent. Pretty enough to be pretty, but maybe not so pretty as to stand out in a crowd. Unless, of course, I’m the only naked person in the room. Then you might notice me.
Along the way I sold ballet shoes, house-sat, cat-sat, and worked behind a Hertz rent-a-car counter, a job I left the nanosecond I got hired as an advertising writer for kids’ cereals. That job lasted until the client meeting where I made an unfortunate comment involving the word crap, followed by a job as a technical writer for a mountain-biking company, until it was discovered I knew everything about lying my way through an interview, and nothing about technical writing or mountain biking. Next came a few years writing for a Weight Watchers–type website, and one Christmas season selling Mixmasters and can openers in the appliance department at Bloomingdale’s. I stumbled onto my job at Hipp because of someone I slept with whom I had no business sleeping with right after my divorce, but my self-esteem at the time wasn’t exactly helping me make sound decisions.
Other people might have read a résumé like mine and thought, No focus.
Not Deirdre. She got it in her head that I was some sort of fearless daredevil who’d do anything. For my interview we met in her office “before hours,” which for her meant before her 8:00 a.m. meeting, and for me meant before I was actually awake. When she offered me a cup of coffee, I didn’t tell her I’d already had two.
Deirdre’s office at the time was all-white laminate and chrome and glass with a white carpet. Now it’s all-white laminate and chrome and glass with a gray carpet. She sat on one side of her glass-top desk; I sat on the other on a white Mies van der Rohe pavilion chair. A side benefit of a family in the upholstery business—you know your furniture styles.
“So tell me about this nude-modeling job,” she said, running her gel-tipped fingernails through her spiked, blond hair. Deirdre dresses young for her age—her age at the time being forty-eight, but her wardrobe more like eighteen, with her low-cut dresses and ankle-high boots and enough bracelets to open a jewelry stand. “What did you get from the experience?”
“Fourteen dollars an hour plus tip jar,” I said. “It helped pay expenses.”
“Were you self-conscious?”
“It’s not a good job for self-conscious people.”
“It must have required a certain amount of bravado.” Deirdre held out a bowl and offered me a cashew. I shook my head no; I didn’t want nuts in my teeth. “I admire that,” she said. “The piece about your ex demonstrated bravado.”
I tried to look full of bravado while she told me she needed a writer who’d be willing to take on the more creative challenges. She emphasized the word challenges with an odd smirk.
“Will it involve removing my clothes?” I asked.
“No. It requires a good attitude and a sense of humor.”
A good attitude and sense of humor? How tough could that be?
Deirdre told me the job specifics and benefits and gave an example of a typical assignment, something about a pit crew at a racetrack and changing tires under duress, but I was too busy getting inwardly thrilled from hearing the salary and how I could come and go as I pleased and that she didn’t believe in chaining her writers to their desks. By then I couldn’t get the words out of my mouth fast enough when I said, “I’ll take it!”
So while Emily sits on her sweet ass reviewing books for her column, Emily Literati, I get assigned all the whack job pieces, or what used to be called human interest, but in my case is more like human sacrifice.
I reviewed my last several assignments in my head looking for ways I might have screwed up, reasons why Deirdre might have requested our 2:00 meeting.
Let’s see, the aerial-yoga class where I had to swing upside down on fabric trapezes? No. Deirdre liked that piece. The shooting-range-in-New-Jersey article also went well, and I really think the gentleman from Passaic got over that little incident with the clay pigeons. And Deirdre wrote me a purple-inked memo congratulating me on my undercover bra-fitter piece. We received all sorts of comments online, most of them positive, except from that one woman who swore she’d never shop at the Brassiere Firm again. (Honest, Ms. 42D, I swear it wasn’t my fault.)
I couldn’t come up with anything, at least not anything that would get me fired. Of course, I’d been fired enough times in the past to know you never know.
* * *
“I want you to write a piece about romance,” Deirdre was saying to me, the two of us sitting on opposite sides of her big-kahuna desk.
“Me? Really?” I’m the last person on the planet Earth I’d assign to write about romance. Maybe a nice dissertation about loser romance, but any other expertise on my part was highly questionable.
“Did you see that video of the guy proposing at a basketball game?” Deirdre said. “The couple on a Kiss Cam?”
“The viral one, where the girlfriend walked out and left the guy on one knee?”
We cringed in unison.
“How can anyone so totally misread his relationship?” Deirdre said.
Been there, done that, I thought.
“He’s buying diamonds while she’s signing on to Match. What made him think she was the one?” Deirdre paused, looked at me, and waited.
I finally said, “That was a rhetorical question, right?”
She leaned forward, all earnest and excited. “What with texting, skyping, online dating, how’s anyone to know what’s real? How does romance cut through the digital bullshit?” Deirdre’s energy went into overdrive. “We’ll make this a big article, have you question people on how they recognized their soul mates.” I didn’t mention that I thought soul mates were bullshit. “Did their eyes meet across a crowded bar? Did a brick land on their head? Or did they get humiliated on a Kiss Cam?”
I said I believed any circumstances leading to a Kiss Cam were humiliating.
Deirdre swept her hands in the air, her bracelets jangling. “?‘Cyberdate? Or Soul Mate?’?” She was writing headlines in the air. “?‘Love at First Sight? Or First Gigabyte?’?” She zoomed her attention back to me. “I’m giving you three weeks.”
Boondoggle! Turnaround time on assignments is usually never more than a few days. Then Deirdre explained she wanted an extensive, well-researched piece with lots of interviews; and I’d be writing it in addition to my other assignments. A certain personality type might have thought, What an opportunity! I was thinking, Dammit, extra work.
“Sound good?” she said.
“What an opportunity!” I said.
“I want this to be sharp, witty, candid. Poignant and intimate. Written like Nora Ephron.”
I gulped. An audible, embarrassing gulp. “But I’m not Nora Ephron.”
“You aren’t Abe Lincoln, but you can study the Civil War.”
Before I could respond, Deirdre told me she was simply unable to emphasize the importance of the assignment. Then spent the next five minutes emphasizing it.
I sat there wondering what was the downside of bungling the job. Failure? Embarrassment? The disdain of my peers? Versus pissing off Deirdre if I said thanks, but no thanks. My Visa bill flashed before my eyes. “Tell me more,” I said.
“Make it fun and romantic. Like Nora’s movies,” Deirdre said.
“Fun and romantic. Like her movies. Fine. Got that.” Holy shit. “Do you mind me asking why you chose me for this assignment?”
Deirdre laughed. “You’re not afraid to ask people personal questions.”
“Can I ask you a question?”
Deirdre frowned. Sat back.
“If I do a good job on this, can we talk about me writing a column? I’d call it MyEye. Mainly the same sort of things I’m writing already, but with, you know, my picture and name on top.”
“See,” Deirdre said. “You’ve got nerve. That’s why I value you.” She hit her buzzer and barked into the little black intercom, “Gavin! Coffee!” She smiled at me, nodding at the same time. The smile meant You can go now. The nod meant Right now.
But on my way out of her office, she added, “Let’s see how you do on your Nora piece. Then we’ll talk.”
* * *
As soon as I returned to my cubicle, Emily’s head floated over our divider. “Hi!” she said, as if she were surprised to see me, instead of what she really was—going crazy waiting to hear what had transpired between Deirdre and me.
A crueler, unkinder Molly Hallberg might have taken serious advantage of the situation, told Emily that I was getting promoted, that I was Emily’s new editor, and that my first official act was to slash her salary by 50 percent.
“Hi back,” I said, not particularly enthusiastic.
“How’d things go for your meeting?”
“Great! I’m getting promoted, I’m your new editor, and for my first official act I’m slashing your salary by fifty percent.”
“Hardee-har-har,” Emily said. “What did Deirdre want to talk about?”
“Oh, the usual. Financial advice. Love-life advice.”
“Well, I hope she didn’t stick you with that soul-mate assignment. Even I dodged that land mine.”
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for What Nora Knew includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Linda Yellin. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Molly Hallberg is a divorced writer living in New York City. For the past four years, Molly has been on staff at EyeSpy, an online entertainment magazine, getting all the wacky assignments. She’s jumped out of airplanes, snuck vibrators through security scanners, and tested kegel-squeezing panties. What she really wants is her own column and to publish her literary essays. Her latest assignment is to write about romance “in the style of Nora Ephron,” and she strikes out big-time. A self-professed cynic, Molly’s no good at love—she’s dating a chiropractor who’s comfortable, but safe—and she won’t acknowledge the one man who can go one-on-one with her. But with insights from Nora Ephron’s iconic comedies, Molly learns to open her heart and find her own fairytale ending.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. The epigraph at the beginning of the book is a quote from Nora Ephron. “There’s no one who’s more romantic than a cynic.” Do you agree? Why do you think the author chose this quote?
2. “Deep-down love, deep-in-the-ventricles-of-your-heart love, was something that happened to other people, make-believe people in fairy tales and movies,” (p. 9) says Molly. Do you think she really believes this? How does her divorce affect how she understands love and romance? Does her relationship with Russell prove or disprove this belief? In what way does Cameron change this thinking?
3. Setting is an important part of Nora Ephron’s movies, from the rain-drenched houseboats in Sleepless in Seattle to the infamous “I’ll have what she’s having” scene in Katz’s deli in New York in When Harry Met Sally?. How does the geography of New York influence this story? Could it have been set anywhere else?
4. While discussing Sleepless in Seattle, Molly tells Cameron “we know Meg will end up with Tom. But it’s not about who she’s going to end up with. We still want to keep watching. We’re mesmerized by the journey.” (p. 91) Would you say the same is true of this story? Why or why not?
5. “Happy couples create romantic narratives; they tell meet-cute stories worthy of a romantic comedy.” (p. 236) Do you think this is true? How much of an influence do you think movies have on what we look for in romance? Have they conditioned us to expect the grand gesture (p. 290) in our own romances? How does it affect us to compare our own lives to the stories we see on the big screen?
6. Discuss the role of technology in the romantic lives of the characters. How do online dating, Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest play into the story? What do you make of the fact that Molly writes for an online magazine? Does technology help the characters find love? Stand in the way? How would this story be different if it had been written before the advent of these technologies? Consider Nora Ephron’s movie You’ve Got Mail, about how email brings two people together, which was an updated version of The Shop Around the Corner, about two lovers who communicated by letter.
7. “The thing is, why are sex scenes necessary?” (p. 118) Molly believes keeping the details of what happens in the bedroom off screen (and off the page) is better than describing these acts in detail. Do you agree? How does it change the story to keep the bedroom scenes off the page? What is gained and what is lost by not showing the details?
8. Molly breaks up with Russell while waiting in line for a terrible movie he wants to see. Throughout the story, his thirst for Nicolas Cage movies is at odds with her love of Nora Ephron movies. In a book so deeply rooted in film references, what else does their differing tastes in movies say about them? What does it say that Cameron takes Molly to see Sleepless in Seattle? Can you judge a couple’s compatibility by their taste in movies?
9. Cameron insists that elements of his book aren’t stolen from other writers, they’re homages to other writers. Do you think the same is true of Nora’s movies, in the way Sleepless in Seattle is a take on An Affair to Remember and When Harry Met Sally nods to Casablanca? Do you see this book as a take on Nora Ephron’s movies? An homage to her? What allusions to her movies did you like? Not like?
10. Do you believe in love at first sight? Why or why not?
11. Molly dreams of having her own column and, eventually, publishing a book of her essays. Through the course of the story, she does get both a column and an agent, but both opportunities come because Cameron has pulled strings for her. Is this a weakness, a sign that she needs a man’s help to get ahead no matter what she thinks? Or does this come across instead as a type of modern chivalry, a sign that shows how much he cares for her? How do you interpret his interventions in her career?
12. Through most of the story, Molly is something of a cynic about love, but she admits, “I wanted to feel cherished. I wanted to feel adored . . . I wanted someone to get me and then love what he got. Most of all, I wanted to believe, re-believe, that was possible.” (p. 211) Do you think she gets this at the end? Why or why not? Does her transformation from cynic to romantic feel believable?
13. “How do we know they ended up happy?” Molly says of Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan of Sleepless in Seattle. “We never saw a sequel.” (p. 150) Do you think Molly and Cameron end up happy? What makes you think that?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Pick one of the movies Nora Ephron wrote (you can find a list at imdb.com) and watch it together. Or take it a step further and watch An Affair to Remember (referenced in Sleepless in Seattle), Casablanca (referenced in When Harry Met Sally) or The Shop Around the Corner (like in You’ve Got Mail). Make lots of popcorn.
2. Mike Bing is Cameron Duncan’s literary alter ago, and while he shares some of Cameron’s quirks, he has a more glamorous job and love life, and is an idealized version of the writer. Imagine what your own literary alter ego would be like. What would she do, and how would she act? Share your thoughts with the group.
3. Nora Ephron’s last full-length screenplay was Julie & Julia, about a woman who cooks through every recipe in Julia Child’s The Art of French Cooking. Make your next meeting a French-themed dinner, creating recipes from the cookbook (don’t forget the butter!) and drinking French wine.
4. In addition to her screenplays, Nora Ephron was known for her essays and journalistic writing. Check out some of her non-fiction, including Crazy Salad: Some Things About Women, I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman, or I Remember Nothing: And Other Reflections.
A Conversation with Linda Yellin
Your novel is filled with subtle references to Nora Ephron’s movies. Or what some people might call stealing. What are some of those references?
Well, the description of Cameron is a description of Tom Hanks, and Molly is blond like Meg Ryan. The scene with Cameron and Molly sitting back to back in a café is in the same setting as the scene between Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in You’ve Got Mail. And the montage when Cameron and Molly walk together follows the same route as Tom and Meg’s in You’ve Got Mail. Molly sees a boy with a teddy bear in the lobby of the Empire State Building; that’s a shout-out to Jonah and his teddy bear in Sleepless in Seattle, as well as the Jimmy Durante music Molly hears. And Arnold and Shirley are the names of the hamsters in Heartburn. There are other references, but they’re so subtle even I don’t remember them.
Did you have to do research for the story?
Yes. Anything that takes place in Long Island, I had to call my friend Suzi in Merrick. Plus I watched all the Nora Ephron movies. Except Silkwood. I’ve never seen Silkwood. It sounds depressing.
Isn’t that what Kristine says in the book?
She stole that from me.
What was the most interesting thing you learned?
That Nora went into the family business; her parents were also Hollywood screenwriters.
Did you ever consider going into your family’s business?
No. I had zero interest in manufacturing dog bowls.
Everyone falls in love in the book. Who’s your favorite couple?
It’s a toss-up between Arnold and Shirley or Joyce and Irwin.
Aren’t Joyce and Irwin turtles?
Doesn’t that give the edge to Arnold and Shirley?
That depends on how you feel about turtles.
Who’s your favorite character in the novel?
Emily. She’s so divinely intrusive, and her workplace demeanor reminds me of my first job as a catalog copywriter at Sears. The copywriters all sat in cubicles, and we devoted far more of our workdays to pranks than to writing about toasters and washing machines. For reasons that now escape me, I had a rubber figurine of the Pillsbury Doughboy as well as a plastic donkey on my bookshelf. My buddies Mike and Jim were always sneaking into my cube and arranging the Doughboy and donkey into obscene positions.
Emily doesn’t do that.
Only because Molly does not have a plastic donkey. Otherwise, I’m sure Emily would.
How did you come up with the names for your characters?
I asked for volunteers on Facebook. It just goes to show how trusting some people are. I could have been writing a book packed with murderers and terrorists and naming all those murderers and terrorists after my Facebook friends, but nobody seemed to care. Except for one woman who stipulated that I wouldn’t use her name for any French schoolgirls. I don’t know why. But it wasn’t a problem because there are no French schoolgirls in the book.
Molly says she’s terrible at writing sex scenes. Do you have the same problem?
Yes, and thank goodness. I avoid them. All my husband needs is me going, “Honey, that little thing you just did with your tongue—how do you spell that?”
Molly seems to cover a lot of unusual assignments. Sneaking vibrators through security. Wearing kegel underpants. Oddly enough, you seem to have covered many of these same magazine assignments in your own career.
Yes. But I have never posed nude.
Nobody’s ever asked.
Let’s play a game. Pick one: Billy Crystal or Tom Hanks?
It’s a draw.
Bill Pullman or Greg Kinnear?
What’s the difference?
Bruno Kirby or Rob Reiner?
Definitely Rob Reiner. I’ve been crushing on him for years.
Carrie Fisher or Rosie O’Donnell?
Carrie. Mainly because her mom is Debbie Reynolds.
Meg Ryan or Meg Ryan?
What’s the best way to get to know the real Linda Yellin?
Go to LindaYellin.com. Or spend eight weeks with me in summer camp. Preferably in Wisconsin.
Molly says in the novel that writers are always asked about their process. What’s your writing process?
There tend to be two camps. Neither of which is in Wisconsin. The first is writers who make thorough story outlines. The second is all the writers who believe that, if there’s no surprise for the author, there’s no surprise for the reader. They start with a premise and a few characters and see where it takes them. I fall somewhere in-between. I make a rough list of possible scenes that might create a story flow. But no roman numerals are involved.
When Harry Met Sally was made in 1989. Sleepless in Seattle in 1993. You’ve Got Mail was 1998. Why do you think Nora Ephron’s movies are still so beloved even decades after she made them?
Who doesn’t love a love story? And her characters are totally endearing. You can’t help but root for everyone to end up happy. But the movies aren’t just romantic; they’re filled with all that witty banter and repartee. So even though you’re sitting there crying at the end, you feel sophisticated.
Did you ever meet Nora Ephron?
No. When I first moved to New York in 1996, we lived in the same apartment building, this big kinda famous courtyard building on the Upper West Side, but I never ran into her. All sorts of celebrities lived in the building and I never ran into any of them. Cyndi Lauper. Bob Balaban. But every morning I’d watch Rosie O’Donnell through my bedroom window when her limo picked her up for work.
You spied on her?
That’s one way to put it. I’d prefer to say I observed her. Spying would be if I broke into her apartment and hid behind her dining room curtains.
So, Linda, having written this novel, is there any way you feel you’re at all similar to Nora Ephron?
Yes. I have a long, skinny face. Other than that, I remain forever in her awe. She was a genius.