Nora Ephron was one of the most brilliant writers of the 20th century, famous for her biting wit and sharp observations, and beloved for her insights into the human experience. But it wasn’t her keen eye or her caustic humor that turned her into an icon for millennial writers. Rather, it was a simple affliction known as heartburn that brought her into the zeitgeist.

In 1983, Ephron published a semi-autobiographical novel called Heartburn, chronicling the dissolution of the marriage between its protagonist, Rachel Samstat, and its thinly disguised version of Ephron’s second husband, Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein. The book struck a chord with readers, not just for its clever prose and wry humor, but for the honesty with which it depicted the messy, painful, often ridiculous business of human relationships.

At its core, Heartburn is a story about betrayal and the struggle to reconcile one’s idealized vision of love with the often disappointing reality. Rachel is a food writer and a devoted wife and mother, but when she discovers that her husband is having an affair with their mutual friend, she is shattered. Throughout the course of the book, she grapples with her rage, her sorrow, her loneliness, and her own culpability in the breakdown of her marriage. But even in the midst of her heartbreak, she never loses her wry sense of humor or her penchant for observation. In fact, it is through her descriptions of food and cooking that she is able to express the full range of her emotions, from joy to despair.

The book was a critical and commercial success, and it cemented Ephron’s place as one of the most important cultural commentators of her time. But it also had a broader impact on the literary landscape. Heartburn was one of the first books to truly capture the ethos of the 1980s, with its preoccupation with wealth and status, its fascination with celebrity and media, and its ambivalence toward traditional family values. It helped to define a new genre of confessional, autobiographical writing that would come to dominate the 1990s and beyond, with writers like Elizabeth Wurtzel, Augusten Burroughs, and David Sedaris.

But perhaps more than anything, Heartburn paved the way for a new generation of female writers who were unafraid to embrace their own messiness and imperfections. Ephron was a trailblazer for writers like Lena Dunham, Samantha Irby, and Roxane Gay, who have all written candidly about their own struggles with relationships, body image, mental health, and more. They, like Ephron, use humor and empathy as their tools, using their own personal experiences to illuminate larger truths about the human condition.

There’s also something uniquely millennial about Ephron’s approach to life and art. She was a master of the personal essay, that most ubiquitous of modern literary forms, and she excelled at capturing the anxieties and obsessions of a generation raised on self-reflection and self-promotion. She was expert at balancing sincerity with irony, sincerity with self-awareness, and she forged a path for other writers to do the same.

In many ways, it’s fitting that the symbol of Ephron’s legacy is heartburn. It’s a common affliction, a universal experience, and an apt metaphor for the vulnerability and discomfort that lie at the heart of all great writing. And yet, just as Rachel Samstat turns her heartburn into a source of creativity and power, so too has Ephron’s book become a catalyst for a new generation of writers. Her honesty, humor, and insight continue to inspire us, and her legacy is a reminder that even the most painful experiences can be transformed into something beautiful.