Nora Ephron was a writer of many gifts. She was fearless. She was blunt. She was dazzlingly perceptive. She was writing at the right time. Her connections were fascinating. She could turn coincidence and happenstance into substantial proof that something important was going on – cosmic journalism. She composed what are commonly called zingers – and nearly always the zingers really zung. But that’s not what was so amazing about her. I mean, for any writer, just a few of those attributes would be a lot, but Ephron, who died in June, had something else, too, something that took very good writing and made it special, made it quotable and funny and resonant. Ephron had hyperbole.

Hyperbole is why an essay like “A Few Words About Breasts” is so good. The piece ran in Esquire exactly 40 years ago, and all Ephron does in it is reel off a few anecdotes about being flat-chested and wanting to be bustier. It begins in her girlhood, continues into adolescence, and concludes in adulthood, where Ephron states her confessional epiphany about not having larger breasts:

If I had had them, I would have been a completely different person. I honestly believe that.

Ephron overstates and understates wherever possible. For effect. Look at the title. A few words? There are more than 3,600 of them! She’s not being modest. She’s feigning modesty. That was her genius.

As a columnist for Esquire and New York magazine, Ephron wrote at her apex during feminism’s apogee. She wrote about the inadequacies of her body and literary catfights and the differences between women and men and between women and women. She examined the movement’s fine print and explained its big picture, and she did so with this rare mix of deprecation, snobbery, and carefully meted, utterly necessary directness. As a young woman, she was a sharpshooting social and cultural critic. As an older one, her writing gained piquancy and wistfulness.

As a human being, her most powerful quality was that even though she was a very particular, very specific type of woman – liberal, Jewish, affluent, ceaselessly nostalgic, an Upper West Sider – what she observed about American life, her friends, frenemies, and herself was universal. As a writer, that universality was achieved through exaggeration, by performing modesty, by making whatever she could seem like the most, the least, the best, the worst, the first, the last, the only. She used hyperbole the way the painter Yves Klein used blue – it was her favorite color. She used it as shorthand for other, larger truths and characterizations. For example, the majestic perfection of the family of her one of her girlhood friends, Diana, is implied this way:

The Raskobs were the first people in Beverly Hills to have English muffins for breakfast.

Ephron’s favorite trick was to comedify humiliation – on behalf of others and especially herself. She introduces us to poor Buster Klepper, her breasts’ first caresser, about whom Ephron oscillates from mildly harsh to withering to charmed. Buster is a faintly handsome, pimpled nincompoop who golfed seriously and was obsessed with his car – he’s a cheeseball, a dude, a jock. We can accept Ephron’s being so uncharitable with him because Ephron is ultimately more floridly uncharitable about herself. She almost always is. Few writers have disguised self-regard as self-deprecation as triumphantly as she – hyperbole is the string that holds the mask in place. Ephron performs the role of being one of us while only ever being herself.

In “A Few Words About Breasts,” having a flatter chest than other women is a “condition” that she says drove her to seek therapy. When she goes on about her breasts at, say, at dinner or a cocktail party, she says her friends have told her that she can be extremely boring about it. Whenever Ephron says this in any piece, you laugh because it couldn’t be true: This piece is the opposite of “extremely boring.” But you accept her false monotony as a separate condition of the Ephron persona: She can write that people find her dull, but we know better – even in her moviemaking, which was rarely as pungent as her essay-writing. In going on this way about her breasts in print – in 1972 – Ephron managed to re-appropriate certain men’s sexual obsession by psychologizing in a manner that’s initially cute but becomes gradually loaded in a way that tacitly equates mammary envy with penis envy:

And even now, now that I have been countlessly reassured that my figure is a good one, now that I am grown-up enough to understand that most of my feelings have very little to do with the reality of my shape, I am nonetheless obsessed by breasts. 

Ephron exaggerated in the service of greater truth. And sensing this, every once in a while, she’d have to take a moment to remind us that what we’re reading is, indeed, the truth – really! In “A Few Words About Breasts,” she actually does this toward the end of the piece – just in case, say, we don’t quite believe that unprovable bit about the Raskobs and the English muffins. By the time Ephron deduces that she’d be a different woman had she larger breasts, it’s the one moment that the hyperbole feels as if it’s fallen away; or that the exaggeration seems legitimate, like something more devastating than a mere device. It seems deeply true. That also comes at the end of the essay. Ephron no longer seems purely addled by the embarrassments of her adolescence. She seems truly damaged. All the sex in breasts, all the lust and eroticism, all the wonder: They’ve all been exaggerated away. A man reading this is forced to ask: “Do they all think this?” Certain women might feel as if they’d just made a new friend.

For her first column at New York, Ephron wrote a famous piece about Sally Quinn and how appalling Ephron found Quinn’s “use what you got to get what you want” approach to newsgathering. Ephron was often struggling to reconcile a woman’s body being this intersection of personal, public, and political space – of its being a kind frame for feminism. The reason to love “A Few Words About Breasts” is that Ephron manages to get all of this done though the orderly prism of hindsight. It’s a grown woman reflecting on adolescent shame, while remaining painfully aware that yesterday’s inadequacies remain with her every passing year.

Small breasts forced Ephron to think about what her other options were as a woman. Quinn’s model of womanliness was an affront to Ephron both because Ephron felt she was physically disqualified from practicing it and because, she felt, it disqualified women from being taken seriously. This piece isn’t actually about any of that, of course. This piece is just about having small breasts and wanting bigger ones. It trusts that we can read between the lines of its too-muchness and notice something else. Small breasts, yes. But a large brain.

Wesley Morris is a film critic at the Boston Globe. He also writes about style in sports for Grantland. His writing has appeared in Slate, Film Comment, and Ebony. He’s the winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for criticism.

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