Writing professionally for more than 30 years, Delia Ephron has published 10 books, many of which appeal to children or young adults. She recently channeled her talents to an off-Broadway comedy, Love, Loss, and What I Wore, a collaboration for the stage with her sister, writer and director Nora Ephron. The play is based on a book by Ilene Beckerman. Her latest effort is the soon-to-be-released The Girl With the Mermaid Hair for readers 12 and up.
Is age important? Without missing a beat, Ephron answers, “It’s very meaningful.” There’s no avoiding or denying it, she says. Some of us might hide it a little better than others, but it’s there, and it determines an awful lot in our lives. The question of age is a fitting one given the themes in Mermaid. The protagonist, Sukie Jamieson, is a 16-year-old girl struggling with the things that most teenage girls struggle with—her looks, her crushes, and changing relationships with herself and those around her. (That’s the oneline description; the real story goes deeper, and, in parts, makes you wonder whether you’re reading about troubled adolescence or troubled middle age.)
“I’ve written many things, but I always come back to writing kids,” Ephron says. “I am in my comfort zone with children.” That discovery was purely accidental. Her first book How to Eat Like a Child: And Other Lessons in Not Being a Grownup first appeared as an essay in The New York Times Magazine in 1978. The article was so well received that soon after its publication, an offer to expand the article into a book landed in her lap. “Overnight I had a career,” says Ephron. And overnight, the budding writer discovered her calling. “It came out of my own childhood … it comes from there, what you understand about childhood and how you’ve held onto it in some way.”
That explains why the experience of writing for a young audience—children or teens—hasn’t changed much for Ephron over the years. The trappings and appearance of adolescence change over time; the emotional truths remain constant. And as we discover in this latest book—and in much of her other work—those emotional truths stay with you and evolve throughout your life. “I think about age a lot,” Ephron says. “You go to the movies, and you see what people have done to themselves…. There’s that sort of glancing as you go down the street, and you catch a reflection of yourself and think, ‘God, is that me now?’”
Reflections in mirrors feature prominently in Mermaid. Much of Sukie’s inner life plays out in front of one, given to her by her mother, “There was so much fantasy [in mirrors] when I was younger.” The teen also is obsessive about photographing herself with her cell phone—“selfies” she calls the portraits— in a constant quest to assess and adjust her look.
Sukie’s struggles extend to her 40-something mother, a woman as consumed with appearance as herdaughter is. “I regret every frown,” Felice Jamieson says to Sukie at one point. “You can’t cut out smiles, that’s not practical, but it’s better to smile only when you mean it. I regret how polite I am, I really do….” The obsession is severe enough that it leads Felice to undergo a transformation that further confuses Sukie. And for Felice, the question remains: Will the transformation really make life better?
So, the struggles don’t necessarily go away after our teen years. It’s more likely that all the complicated feelings and issues with self-esteem evolve; they might even resurface. At best they’re faced in the context of our lives at any given moment.
“You finally accept your body when you’re 30,” says Ephron. “Then you hit 50 and you have to struggle with it all over again. It’s like a second adolescence. When you get older, the mirror does become an enemy,” she says. And the body becomes something of an enemy, too. “I went to play ping-pong yesterday, and [afterwards] my back was killingme, just from picking up the ping-pong paddle,” says the author. “I got home and said to my husband, ‘I can’t move.’”
The obsession with appearance that Ephron observes in her work—and the degree to which cosmetic and reconstructive surgery has permeated our society—both distresses and baffles her. Still, Ephron isn’t unwilling to accept the natural course of things. “No matter how much yoga you do, life is either kind to you or not.”
-by Dimitra Kessenides '89, photograph by Patricia Williams