“What Does Your Husband Think of the Book?”

On writing a novel about divorce when you’re still married.

An illustration of a woman reading from a book at an event with a man standing in the corner, arms crossed.
Natalie Matthews-Ramo

It finally happened in New York, a month into my book tour, when I was doing one of those readings of my novel where, if you’re extremely lucky, much of the audience has already read the book and comes just to talk through their feelings about it. The question—which I had been waiting for for a while and had allowed myself to think might never come—came from a woman in the back row.

“What does your husband think of the book?” One person made a toothy nervous face, but for the most part they sat and listened, unable to believe the question was even asked. They didn’t notice the small shift from the corner, where my actual husband stood. Nobody did. Just me. It was hard to read his face, which is one of his best traits and also one of his scariest.

I had been asked the question a great many times by then, not always so directly. Certainly it was on people’s minds: a married woman writing about divorce. My mother and my sisters, who felt bad for my husband, Claude, that I would drag him through a fictionalized (but by how much?) story with a narrator who matched up against me biographically (and maybe in other ways) pretty specifically. There were the moms at school, who asked if I was going to let my kids read this (and one who asked if I was “worried” that my parents would). A friend, on reading the book, referring to the narrator’s hapless, steamrolled husband as “the Claude character.”

The question had hovered over other questions people asked: “How much of this is true?” “What did you draw on to write this?” “How is your understanding of divorce so specific and nuanced?” But it was only right now that someone was asking it so directly, and right in front of Claude.

Fleishman Is in Trouble is my first novel. It’s about a couple whose recent divorce launches them into completely different worlds, farther apart than ever. Some of the changes are welcome; some are reviled. The book has a first-person narrator whose biographical sketch matches loosely with mine. I knew what I was doing when I wrote it; I hadn’t quite considered the fallout of the loosely sketched husband in the book, who is passive and plain, and played for a while like a fool. My husband had read the book in a few nights next to me, in bed. Never once did he say a word about this, except that the husband’s name was also the name of an ex-boyfriend of mine, whom I had so long since forgotten that I hadn’t realized it. I changed the name and tried not to think about it.

Me, I didn’t mind the question. It indicated good things about the book—that it felt real, that it felt audacious. Why would I write something if it wasn’t both of those things? Conversations about my book, public and private, were evolving, and it indicated to me one thing: People write about divorce. They write about one aggrieved party or the other in the aftermath of divorce. They write about relationships that are struggling or doomed. But they never really talk about divorce that much. And they never, ever talk about marriage.

When I turned 40, my friends began to tell me, one by one, that they were getting divorced. There is a way you’re supposed to respond to that, which is to cluck a little and narrow the eyes and ask if the person is doing OK. Mostly, I’ve learned, they are. The thing that isn’t OK is that they have to go around telling people all about the failure of their marriages and having to watch people react to it. Luckily, the best thing I know how to do as a journalist is keep a straight face as I receive information.

Which is good, because people don’t really want to tell you how they’ve suffered, is what I’ve learned. They want to tell you about their new lives. They want to be happy without having to shoulder your shock or sadness. They want to tell you about all the new sex they are having.

Before I learned this, I used to ask. Only in one or two cases was I so in their lives that I had been told or at least sensed that something was wrong. For the most part, my friends who were in troubled marriages hibernated from friends, riding out their marital fumes in a way that felt least public and embarrassing to them, like an animal healing itself in the woods. Back when I did ask, my male friends told me that they couldn’t stay married because their wives were just so angry all the time. My female friends told me that they couldn’t stay married because they were so angry all the time, and their husbands never once thought to ask them why. This would bring up a breathlessness, in which he or she couldn’t stop themselves from building a case against the former spouse. It was almost like muscle memory had kicked in and all the spleen needed to be contracted out of the person’s system before they could stop.

However, listening isn’t the same as talking, and so we’re all left to figure out what went wrong. Behind my judgeless face, I searched for whether I could have predicted any of it; I tried to remember last interactions or ways the spouse had been spoken about before the decision was made. People are generally protective of their spouses until they are not. In my book, the divorced man describes it as having a necrotic finger that you try to cure until one day you realize you could just cut it off and move on.

But I couldn’t move on. Divorce had always been around me. My parents split when I was 6, and like a very lazy detective, I allowed the circumstances of their divorce to unfold slowly to me over a great many years, never realizing that in the interim, in trying to never ascribe blame to either of them—because how could you love them knowing what they had done to you—I had allowed divorce to become an inevitability of marriage. While I was on my book tour, two of my three sisters were updating me on their divorce proceedings. At one reading, I held up to the crowd a picture of my sister standing outside the courthouse, looking years younger and far happier than I had seen her in years. She captioned it: “I’m free!” I had been to their weddings—my sisters’, my friends’, my mother’s second wedding. They were all as happy on their wedding days as I was on mine. But something happened between now and then, and I hadn’t seen it coming. Neither had they.

We don’t talk about marriage. We let each of our marriages live in tiny black boxes like the kinds that they do puppet shows out of, visible only on one side, the operations of them hidden. We don’t talk about how much we fight, how hard it is to adjust, how much sex we do or don’t have. We don’t talk about the tension of raising children, how parenting can bring out a differential in values that we had never considered before it was far too late. We watch like detectives to see if we have the same tensions that others have, or worse. If we hold hands as much, or worse. We watch to see if they also have scheduled date nights, then decide if the scheduled date night was mandated by a couples therapist.

And we don’t talk about whether marriage is worth it anymore, because who can really talk about that, other than single people, who no longer have a potential trail of collateral damage? I no longer need a man to support myself or to own property. He no longer needs me to have children or keep the house. So we are left with an institution that has emerged statistically as untenable—truly, if a surgery had the success rate that marriage has, it wouldn’t be a surgery anyone did—and a wake that is full of people drowning in their own sadness and lack of self-worth because of the monumental failure they’ve just experienced.

I guess it’s better they ask me how my husband feels about the book than about how I feel about the institution of marriage. As if it’s not all in there.

Claude has an answer for the questions about how he feels about Fleishman. He doesn’t contend with the innuendo of the question; truly (that face), I don’t even know if he notices it. Instead he just says: “Oh, Taffy? She’s obsessed with divorce.” Yes, other people’s first novels were always going to be coming-of-age stories, and mine was always going to be about divorce.

This goes into my calculus about marriage as well, though. I have a witness for my life, someone who knows the answers to the questions I haven’t considered; someone who forgives me for all the sins I don’t even know I’m committing. There are other questions that come up in these readings, and they are about whether we’re all doomed. They are about whether my book is too grim.

But I don’t see how.There’s my husband in the corner, who’s married to someone always wondering just how solid the ground beneath her feet is, and who always reassures her that it’s good. There’s my ring on my finger. There are all my friends, rising up from the ashes of their old marriages and seeking out new bodies to bond to. What is more romantic—more optimistic and life-affirming—than the fact that we know how all of this might end and still we continue to try?

Reprinted courtesy of Taffy Brodesser-Akner / The Times of London  / News Licensing