This is a story about love. Does it conquer all? Does lightening ever strike twice? Delia Ephron’s almost unbelievable memoir, Left on Tenth, coming in April from Little, Brown, will make you a believer. Her story of shattering illness, grief, medicine, miracles, friendship, romance, and second chances is inspiring, honest, and also wonderfully funny. This is because Ephron is all those things, and she’s captured them on the page.
Ephron is well-known as a prolific author of novels, essays, humor, and especially screenplays, most famously Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail. But Left on Tenth is a deeply personal odyssey about three tumultuous years in her life. It begins with the death of her husband of 54 years, Jerry Kass, in 2015. After a tremendously happy marriage, his death was a terrible loss: “Before Jerry, I wasn’t someone who knew much about love,” she writes. “I could never have found my way without him.”
Dealing with loss is devastating, and then there is the minutiae that doesn’t go away. When Ephron cancels a landline, she loses internet, which leads to a frustrating episode with Verizon, which leads to a New York Times op-ed piece (“Love and Hate on Hold with Verizon” from Aug. 19, 2016), which leads to an email from a Jungian psychiatrist in California who not only tells her that he is recently widowed and had a similar experience with AT&T but that they had dated at 18, fixed up by Ephron’s sister Nora. He also tells her he loved her 2016 novel Siracusa. As she says in the book, “He knew the way to a writer’s heart.” They exchange emails and phone calls, meet, fall madly in love, and a few months later she is diagnosed with the same deadly cancer that took Nora.
Peter Rutter and Ephron marry in the hospital dining room; she goes through horrific cutting-edge treatments and, miraculously, comes out whole and well. She keeps the experience close to the vest until she writes another Times op-ed: “After 54 Years, We Fell in Love. After Five Months, I Got Leukemia” (May 27, 2017).
Let me reveal that I know Delia. I knew Jerry and met Peter at a party they gave in their West Village apartment. I did not know she was ill. We had dinner after her remission, and it is hard to believe what she has been through. She looks wonderful and her spirit matches her looks. I ask her what made her write this book.
She tells me there were many reasons. “My writer’s heart started to beat again. I knew I had been through a remarkable period of my life: I lost Jerry, fell in love, and was diagnosed with a fierce leukemia. These were big things in a small period of time, 2015 to 2020. Writing was the only way to get to the other side of the trauma. I needed to find myself again. Writing this book was healing.”
Ephron underwent chemotherapy to rid her bone marrow of disease. Then she had a bone marrow transplant from two donors, from the blood of an adult and from blood from the umbilical cord of a baby. While the cord blood multiplies, she explains in the book, the adult donor takes over and then fades away. “Some science sounds like science fiction,” Ephron writes.
It was in February 2020, at the start of Covid-19’s spread in the U.S., that Ephron’s doctor told her, “It worked. You’re fine.” Ephron sent for her hospital records. She had notes made after Jerry died. She asked friends about things she had said and done during her illness. There were a lot of surprises about what they told her—episodes she didn’t remember.
“It was joyful to write this book,” she says. “To celebrate my friendships, my ‘women warriors,’ to celebrate my emails. [Rutter had written emails to her while she was sick that she had never seen.] Reading them was like finding a treasure chest. It was an adventure.”
Ephron started writing in July 2020, and by October had 100 pages. She told her agent, Lynn Nesbit, what she was doing. “I was Delia’s agent when she began writing books for adults,” Nesbit says. “I knew about her illness before the New York Times piece, and knew she had told some close friends. We met when she got out of the hospital, and her feeling was, ‘Thank God I’m back.’ Our lunch was celebrating her life.”
Nesbit says that about two years ago Ephron asked her if she’d like to read something. “It was half a book. I knew everyone in it and by this time knew Peter. The book was incredibly moving. It’s not sentimental but shows her intelligence and her wit. It’s a story of love and courage. I don’t cry easily,” Nesbit adds, “but I read this with tears in my eyes. I always say everyone should have a miracle in their life. Delia deserved this miracle and she got it.”
Nesbit sent out the unfinished manuscript selectively in September 2020. There was an auction, and North American rights went to Little, Brown editor-in-chief Judy Clain. Left on Tenth will publish simultaneously in the U.K. with Transworld. “In my 20 years in publishing,” Clain says, “once in a while a heartbreakingly good book comes along and everyone falls in love with it. This is the book, full of joy and magic.”
After Clain saw “about one-sixth” of the book, she says she was hooked. “It was perfect: the voice on the page, the range of emotions so profound. Delia went so deep into grief and sorrow and then so high. And the book reads as though it were effortless. She’s so writerly, so slyly brilliant. I expect that at this particular moment, the book will be a gift to readers. It shows strength, resilience, friendship, and love.”
Ephron says she had PTSD from the illness and the treatment. “When you’re really sick,” she explains, “your brain and heart shrink because of what you’ve gone through.”
Clain adds to this, telling me that she gave the book to her mother, who said, “Tragedy often makes people’s hearts small but it expanded Delia’s.”
And when Ephron says, “Miracles happen. I feel like I am a miracle,” who could deny it?