Taffy Brodesser-Akner, the journalist-turned-novelist-turned-screenwriter, and a married mother of two, awoke one morning when she was 40 to find that all her friends were suddenly getting divorced. Then almost immediately, traversing dating apps. She was especially fascinated to see that her male friends, who’d struggled in their pre-cellphone teens and 20s to get a woman even to glance their way, were now lusted-after catches.
She called her editors at GQ – where she’d worked from early in her journalism career, and where the mostly male staffers, she notes wryly, apply the language of war to magazine writing – to pitch them. They told her dating apps were old news.
“I literally hung up, sat down and started writing it as a novel,” Brodesser-Akner, now 45, said in a recent video interview. She wore a chic black bow blouse and saddle shoes so cool she held them up for me to ooh at. Her hair, nails and makeup were impeccable – this will matter later – and she radiated a bubbly, irrepressible warm humour. I wanted to fling away my questions and just yack with her, which is how the subjects of her brilliant celebrity profiles in The New York Times, where she is currently on staff, must feel, because they open up to her like clams in warm broth. (Google her pieces on Gwyneth Paltrow and Tom Hanks. I’ll wait.)
That novel she sat down to write, Fleishman is in Trouble, became an instant bestseller, hitting a funny/painful nerve, like that tooth in your mouth you can’t stop touching with your tongue. Now it’s an eight-hour series (streaming in Canada on Disney+), which Brodesser-Akner herself adapted, with input from executive producer Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich, Unbelievable). It stars Jesse Eisenberg as Toby Fleishman, newly divorced and testily bewildered; Claire Danes as his steely-but-not ex, Rachel Fleishman; and Lizzy Caplan as their friend Libby, a stand-in for Brodesser-Akner, who narrates their tale and her own – allowing Brodesser-Akner to keep many of her novel’s droll observations.
Fleishman is in Trouble, both iterations, pulls off that great writerly sleight of hand, where you think it’s about one thing and are stunned to discover it’s about something else. It’s also about everything: Competitive motherhood. Lifelong friendships. How family and marriage are mysteries for every person who attempts them. How we outgrow the ones we love. How affairs are a married person’s attempt to get back to the last moment they recognized themselves. Whether divorce is a referendum on your life choices, or just bad luck. Why divorced men rarely date women their own age (“Younger women hate us less”). How women turn “same-shaped” and go for “moms’ nights out, drinking Aperol spritzes in our blousy tops.” How suburban contentment breeds quiet (“It’s like we’ve died and our houses are our headstones”). That middle age is that moment when your life, marriage, money and friendships make you miserable just when you’re supposed to have everything set. The crushing guilt of mothers who suffer postpartum depression.
And mainly – this is Brodesser-Akner’s superpower – how “everyone is great and terrible and flawed and there are no exceptions to that.”
“It was time to examine marriage through the lens of whether or not we still need it,” says Brodesser-Akner, who grew up in Brooklyn and studied dramatic writing at New York University. “So many women I know are out-earning their male partners in heterosexual marriages, and that’s kind of a crisis. Even if the men are feminists, rooting for us, it’s a crisis for them to suddenly find out that our work takes up the same amount of time that their mothers had spent making martinis for their fathers. You can be a great feminist and still wonder where your martini is, and who is supposed to be making it, and is there even a martini anymore?”
Despite the similarities between the character Libby (who also worked at GQ) and the writer Taffy, Brodesser-Akner says the plot is not autobiographical – yet is “made up of a series of desperate emotions I must have felt. Because when I look at it I think, ‘Hoo, the author of this must have been really going through something.’ ”
Anyone who’s read Brodesser-Akner’s celebrity profiles (and gurgled with delight, as I do) feels like they know her, because she puts herself, audaciously, into them. “I started out writing personal essays at home when I had babies,” she says.
“When I started writing about other people, I had no other way to write than to apply that format. I’m not really writing about myself though – I’m writing about the common denominator emotions a reader might have. The courage I have is to understand that none of my feelings are unique, so if I think something, the rest of the world thinks it too. And I’ve been right. That’s been the most comforting thing. That takes me through my day.”
After living inside the Fleishmans’ marriage and midlives for so long, Brodesser-Akner now feels more at ease in her own. “It’s like The Ring,” she says, referring to the horror movie where the only way to save yourself from dying is to show a video to someone else. “I passed the story on, and people are like, ‘What have you done!’ ” She laughs. “Once I got it out, I felt better about everything. I landed on the idea that marriage is like democracy – the worst form of government, except for all the other forms.”
In the spirit of everyone being flawed, Brodesser-Akner’s target is not just the patriarchy, but the matriarchy, too. “I was lecturing my children, who are 12 and 15, about this yesterday,” she says. “I told them, ‘My reward for getting a show on TV and doing interviews is that I had to spend a whole weekend getting my nails done and hair ripped out of my face. I’ve been in this hotel room for hours, while someone blew out my hair and then recurled it, and someone gave me a face that is not my face. No man does that. The men in this room are laughing. It’s only women who expect that of other women, and I don’t know what to do about that.
“The idea that we paint our nails and therefore can’t use our hands for hours!” she continues, amusing herself as well as me now. “That we wear high heels we can’t run in! How are we not more skeptical of that? Or mindfulness! We’re told to go to meditation classes and yoga classes – we are told to stop thinking for hours at a time, and people call that wellness! Instead, why don’t we, I don’t know, think?”
Her children received this lecture “the way they receive my patriarchy lectures,” Brodesser-Akner concludes, grinning. “Which was, they were looking at their phones.”
Special to The Globe and Mail
Sign up for The Globe’s arts and lifestyle newsletters for more news, columns and advice in your inbox.