Writing about real people and made-up people is the same thing, Taffy Brodesser-Akner tells The Jewish Week. Now that The New York Times Magazine writer of celebrity profiles has published a first novel, she finds that journalists and fiction writers “have the same job. To tell their story.”
Reflecting on “Fleishman Is in Trouble” (Random House), she says, “You create and then you observe.”
It’s not often that I get to write about an “it” book that is being reviewed prominently and read widely. Turns out it’s a very Jewish novel, not only because the main characters are Jewish and several of them met when they were 20 during their junior year abroad in Israel, but that Brodesser-Akner gets all the Jewish references exactly right. It’s also very much a New York novel, from the cover photo, set upside down, of a Manhattan panorama, to the finely drawn portraits of the city’s strivers.
“I never would have said I wrote a Jewish novel, but people keep saying it is. It’s not mine anymore — it’s theirs,” she says, during an interview in Dumbo, just before a speaking engagement about the book. “A friend says that it’s so Jewish but can’t figure out why, beyond the Jewish characters, beyond Israel. And I guess that’s because I’m so Jewish.”
Brodesser-Akner grew up in Dix Hills, L.I., as a young child, and moved to Brooklyn when her parents divorced when she was 6. She attended the Yeshiva of Crown Heights, Poly Prep and graduated from Yeshiva University High School for Girls, known as Central. After a year at Bar-Ilan in Israel, she attended Queens College and then graduated from New York University with a degree in screenwriting. Her first job was writing for a soap opera magazine.
Along the way, the author’s mother became Orthodox after her divorce, and her two sisters did too, while she was reluctant. “It was dramatic,” she says, but notes that her mother found a life meaningful for her. “I learned at a very young age to understand other peoples’ choices. You have no choice but to.”
“Fleishman Is in Trouble” has been described as a novel of divorce, but Brodesser-Akner says she has thought of it as a book about marriage. It seems like a coming-of-middle-age novel — how lives can unfold in ways unexpected and unsettling, as time speeds ahead. And it’s about the wide gulf between men and women, between expectations and aspirations and the tangle of wealth, love and sex.
Readers may think of Philip Roth, for Brodesser-Akner’s intelligence, humor and sharp insights, and her beautifully crafted sentences. It’s not surprising to learn that she’s a Roth fan. This is a long novel but a quick read, told by a narrator-observer who is introduced subtly and becomes a central character, revealing her own backstory. The novel is propelled forward by events of the Fleishman marriage in trouble, told through flashbacks.
Toby Fleishman is a hepatologist up for a promotion at his hospital; his salary and stature have been disappointing to his wife Rachel, who runs her own talent agency with much ambition and success. She wants him “to negotiate upward, to want more, but he just didn’t.” He carries most of the child-rearing responsibilities and “couldn’t seem to convey to her that he was a real person, that he was not a blinking censor awaiting his instructions.” Married for 14 years and the parents of a daughter preparing for her bat mitzvah and a younger son, they are newly separated as the novel opens: she gets the elegant apartment, the house in the Hamptons and the car; he turns to Ikea.
Toby wonders about himself, “How can you be so far along in this life and still so unsettled?”
It’s not giving away too much to say that early on Rachel slips away from their lives, with no explanation, when Toby has moved out into his own place. His anger grows, even as his social life expands in ways he — who had been a young man with a history of romantic rejections before meeting Rachel — hadn’t thought possible. Through his dating apps, his phone is “literally dripping with lust of women” who want him.
Toby reaches out to Libby Epstein, the narrator, after this his? therapist suggests that he reconnect with old friends as a way of “reclaiming life.” She and Toby and their friend Seth met in Israel 20 years earlier. More recently, Libby had been a staff writer for a men’s magazine and now is at home with her husband and kids in New Jersey, trying to write a coming-of-age novel. Through Libby, the reader comes to understand several sides of this story — and feel empathy.
In an afternoon of torrential rain, Brodesser-Akner and I speak about her book, ideas about marriage and divorce and about writing and interviewing. After doing many interviews about the book, she still seems more used to asking questions than answering them. She admits that her celebrity profiles are autobiographical.
“Of the thousand things that a celebrity can tell me, there are only certain things I hear, so the things I hear must be the things that resonate with me. So when you write a story, there are a hundred thousand ways the story can go, based on the interview. You always choose the thing that feels like the truth to you.”
Before writing about other people for GQ and other publications, Brodesser-Akner wrote a lot of personal essays, and then began to think of writing profiles as “writing personal essays on other people’s behalf. Without their permission.”
Writing this novel, she knew exactly where the plot was headed. “I wrote the first 10 pages, then the last 20, and then filled it out. That’s how I write all my stories, so that they’re cohesive.”
Since the novel has been published, many people have asked her husband how he feels about his wife writing about divorce. She says he replies, “She’s obsessed with divorce.”
“True, there’s a lot of divorce in my family,” she says. “I have been trying to prevent my own divorce from the minute I accepted my husband’s proposal.
“I’m very lucky. I have a very good marriage. If I had a troubled marriage, I would not have been able to write this.” She adds, “My husband believes in art.”
Almost a decade ago, an issue of The Jewish Week’s Text/Context reprinted an article Brodesser-Akner wrote about her marriage — she wrote with candor about her husband’s decision to convert to Judaism, and about his Orthodox conversion. When they lived in Los Angeles for several years, they were active members of a Modern Orthodox community that they loved. But when a woman they knew became an agunah and couldn’t get a divorce for six years, the author’s husband felt he should “conscientiously object” to Orthodoxy. Now, they are part of a Conservative community in Essex County, New Jersey. And that is not the kind of divorce story she is telling in “Fleishman.”
Her next novel is set in Great Neck, and she won’t say more, other than that it’s about wealth.