The Sunday Edition

Novelist Taffy Brodesser-Akner on marriage, divorce and how we're all unreliable narrators

In Brodesser-Akner's new novel, middle-aged Toby Fleishman ends his 14-year marriage and expects to enter a new era of freedom. Then his ex-wife drops their kids off and disappears, and he's forced to reconsider the story he told about their marriage.
Taffy Brodesser-Akner is a staff writer for The New York Times Magazine and author of the new novel 'Fleishman Is in Trouble' (Penguin Random House, Eric Tanner)
Listen21:30

In the stories we tell about our own lives, we're almost always the heroes. 

We make up these stories to explain why we behave the way we do. How other people keep hurting us in the same familiar way. Why we just can't seem to catch a break. 

We walk around convinced that our version of events is true. So when our story bumps up against someone else's, it's a strange and destabilizing experience. 

There may be no other arena where the collision between two radically different stories is so common, or so infuriating, as marriage. Or divorce — when all the conflicting narratives come spilling out, and other people start weighing in on who the real villain was. 

Taffy Brodesser-Akner's new novel, Fleishman Is in Trouble, is about a middle-aged doctor in New York named Toby Fleishman, who has just ended a 14-year marriage. 

He's pretty sure there's only one villain in his story. It's obviously his ex-wife Rachel, who he thinks always paid more attention to her high-powered career than to their family. 

Then one day Rachel drops their two kids off at his apartment, and disappears. Toby is forced to deal with the fallout, and to consider the possibility that he never really understood the story of his own marriage. 

Brodesser-Akner spoke to The Sunday Edition's guest host Peter Armstrong about her novel, and why we need to "stop assuming anybody is a reliable narrator about their own lives."

Here is some of what she had to say. Her comments have been edited for length and clarity. 

On the story Toby Fleishman tells himself about his marriage

He's defending himself against everything he's ever been accused of. But he's like most people at the end of something. He is talking about how he didn't stand a chance. The theme of his story is, 'I couldn't have predicted this. I did my best. I never stood a chance, because she was so angry.' Everyone I know who gets divorced, the husbands always say to me, 'She's just so angry.' I always say, 'Oh, what was she angry about?'

[Toby thinks] that all she wanted was to get ahead, and all she wanted was to be successful, and that she did it at a cost to their marriage and to their children, and the gains from her ambition were superficial. She wanted a house in the Hamptons. She wanted the kids to be able to play with the kids of the rich people. She wanted to compete in those circles.

At some point you hear a story for a long enough period, where you have to start asking yourself, 'What would the other person in this story say?' Would this person say, 'You know what, yeah. I was angry all the time for no good reason. And my ambition was blinding and I cared about nothing more than getting ahead.'

On marriage as a 'secret box'

Marriage is the secret box. I can't believe we are all participating in it in a continuous way without talking about it or questioning it. There is no real measure by which to understand whether or not you are having a good marriage. You fight with your spouse. Everyone fights with their spouse. Am I fighting too much with my spouse? Am I too miserable? 

Existence is a mess, and marriage gets a lot of the brunt of it, fairly or not.- Taffy Brodesser-Akner

And also, is my unhappiness a result of who I am and where I ended up in life, and I blame it on my marriage because it's the closest thing I could contend with? It's the necrotic finger I can remove and save the organism vs. the other thing.

On the collision between two different visions

The state of divorce must mean deciding that you no longer have to contend with someone else's vision of you. It's giving up the fight of trying to make yourself and your intentions known, despite the fact that there is somebody there who is witnessing all of it. 

I think that's the beauty of marriage. It may sound like I'm down on it, but the fact that there is somebody in my life who listens to me be ridiculous, who listens to me be angry, who listens to me be whatever I am, and still chooses me and still loves me is the most life-affirming thing I can think of.

On the disappearance of choices

If you're a middle class person, you start out with some opportunities. You say yes to things and you say no to things, and your life becomes shaped like a pyramid. The minute you have children, you have said, 'Listen, I had a lot of independence. It was amazing. But I don't need it anymore.'

All marriages, if they are successful — all human lives, if they are successful — they head into middle age and then they head into old age. And what do you do with that? Whose fault is it that you no longer have that many choices? 

It doesn't matter. It's not about fault. Existence is a mess, and marriage gets a lot of the brunt of it, fairly or not.

Click 'listen' above to hear the interview. 

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