Fleishman is in Trouble, the debut novel by New York Times Magazine journalist Taffy Brodesser-Akner, about the break-up of a successful, middle-aged Manhattan couple, was last summer’s publishing sensation.
Suddenly everyone was reading and talking about 41 year-old Jewish hepatologist Toby Fleishman, his mid-life crisis and how he discovers a new world of dating apps, sexting and awkward Tinder sex after his marriage to ambitious talent agent Rachel breaks down. The author was praised for her perceptive handling of big themes: aspiration, wealth, gender dynamics and the way women are taught to thrive on pleasing men. Reviews were rapturous. Brodesser-Akner drew comparisons with Philip Roth, John Updike and Tom Wolfe. Nominations for literary prizes poured in. For many, like me, it was simply the best novel of 2019.
A year on, Brodesser-Akner admits she was terrified when it came out. “I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t sleep. I wasn’t sure if it would even get reviewed; I work at a newspaper, so I know how it works.” In the US she is better known for her in-depth interviews with celebrities. Famously, Gwyneth Paltrow invited her over for dinner, Bradley Cooper refused to answer her questions and Nicki Minaj kept dozing off mid-interview. She was papped kissing Tom Hiddleston goodbye after interviewing him, and appeared in print as “a mystery brunette”. She says she feels sorry for actors who “have to contend with what it will mean when someone like me no longer comes for them”, and that she identifies more with me as journalist interviewer than herself as author interviewee.
Today, clocking up steps, walking around her New Jersey neighbourhood, she is talking on the phone, clutching a pedometer and a face mask, which she has only removed to speak. It is mid-lockdown, before the BLM protests have begun. “The schools are shut; everything is shut apart from grocery stores,” she says. “You can’t get a haircut, but I did see someone put his golf clubs in the car this morning.” Though, she says, it’s “appropriate” to stay indoors, the problem for the country as a whole is people’s attitudes to lockdown. “We don’t have to do anything, which is why we’re in such a mess. People are so afraid of having a nanny state and of their personal liberties being taken away, that that actually is the concern, rather than the economy.”
Her own life has not suffered as badly as others, she concedes. “I sit alone in a room at home and I write,” while her husband, journalist Claude Brodesser, does most of the homeschooling for their two sons, 12 and nine.
Lockdown is not the only thing to have changed her life. In spite of her anxieties when it came out, Fleishman clocked up great sales, and the rights for the TV adaptation, which comes out next year, went to a 10-way auction. Brodesser-Akner has scripted the series and is an executive producer. A relatively easy task because the adaptation is so faithful to the book, she says, which is ironic given that she always wanted to be a screenwriter, but when she graduated from film school, there were no jobs so she became a journalist instead.
The delicate power balance between men and women that drives heterosexual desire is the one thing she’s absolutely nailed in Fleishman, a subject she has given a lot of thought to. Her research included masquerading as both sexes on dating apps, but she stopped. “I was committing fraud; these were real people on the other end of the phone.” Many of her friends, approaching 40, were getting divorced and dating again, so she asked to look at their phones instead. She concludes that one reason that app dating is so successful is because it allows women to anticipate and offer men exactly what they want. Sexy pictures and saucy messages. “If part of a man’s sexual desire appears to be that he’s interested in sex, and for a woman’s, it’s that the man be turned on, it works out pretty well, because we want to turn a man on, and a man wants to be turned on!”
And while there’s something niggling and unresolved for her about this dynamic of sexual subjugation, ultimately Fleishman was a novel about the indignity of becoming middle-aged and Brodesser-Akner’s own indignation at turning 40. She is 44 now. “All marriage, divorce and dating stories that take place in your forties, everything you do in your forties, is about being middle-aged and the jolt of the fact that it actually happened to you.” And yes, she says, “It was a shock to me.”
She is just finishing her second novel, Long Island Compromise, about wealth, entitlement and the disappearing middle classes in the US. “My parents’ generation was still able to pursue wealth through hard work and success, but for my generation there’s no wealth if you don’t already have it. There’s no middle class any more for the working class to make it into, and it’s disappearing because its contentment was dependent on the idea that it could have more,” she says.
The novel is due out next year, but she is behind schedule and been beating herself up for writing only 4,000 words a day, when she should have done six thousand. “I feel like a piece of s**t for not writing more, instead of celebrating what is obviously an achievement.” Part of the problem is her tendency to plot too intricately, she says, but the stakes are lower than when writing profiles, because “I don’t hold somebody’s legacy in my hands.” Well, that is, apart from her own.
She has written many articles about herself. Born Stephanie Akner, she grew up in a “very religious” orthodox Jewish family in Brooklyn and her parents divorced when she was six. She has written touchingly about meeting her husband, who was raised a Catholic and converted to Judaism. He was circumcised before their wedding in 2006. She told the New York Times wedding page at the time, that “he was drugged, but the amount of Xanax I was on rivalled it”. Today she describes Brodesser as “a really liberal guy who has made peace with the amount of space his wife takes up.” They keep a kosher household. She is “a big traditionalist” and a “speedy person”, who walks faster than him, despite having shorter legs.
She used to obsess about having a third child. She has struggled with OCD since childhood. Seeing cushions not aligned when she was 11 made her “sweaty and bug-eyed”. Later, she could only end a conversation after the other person concluded a sentence with an odd number of words. CBT therapy has helped her. She has gone (mostly) vegan, but has days off. She is a prolific tweeter.
She talks as she writes: quickly and entertainingly, sometimes going off on tangents. “It’s very hard to write, and to think about putting something that’s good and essential to you onto a piece of paper and letting other people judge it.” But if there’s one thing she shouldn’t worry about, it’s that.
Fleishman is in Trouble is out in paperback on July 9 (Wildfire, £8.99), buy it here.