We first encounter Rachel Fleishman through the eyes of her ex-husband, Toby, who is trying to come to terms with her absence. He notices all the places in his life where she is not. ‘She was not in his bed. She was not in the bathroom, applying liquid eyeliner to the area where her eyelid met her eyelashes … She was not at the gym, or coming back from the gym in a less black mood than usual, not by much but a little.’ ‘She was not’ in a few other places, too. Long litanies comprised of sentences that all start the same way are one of Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s things. A few pages later, when we meet Toby and Rachel’s 11-year-old daughter, Hannah, for the first time, the words ‘Or because’ preface 12 different possible explanations for Rachel’s increasingly bitchy behaviour. Brodesser-Akner gets away with this maximalism. She doesn’t just get away with it, she uses these passages to add to her story’s landslide momentum. She doesn’t just get away with it, she downright relishes her refusal ever to land on just one perfect description or just one plausible explanation, because she’s a natural raconteur whose knack for trapping readers in her web must leave her editors in a state of exhausted inertia. Cut a redundancy and you risk disrupting whatever intangible thing is creating that flow; best just to leave the whole thing intact, maybe adding some paragraph breaks to let the reader gasp for breath before plunging back in.
Anyway, Rachel’s not there. The information about where she is, and who she is, and what she’s like and what made her that way, is doled out in drips until about page 300, which is a shame because when we do get that information, everything that’s come before seems less important and maybe even less true. While each divorce story has two sides to it, hers turns out to be the more interesting. That it gets much shorter shrift, structurally, is one of many problems this book overcomes simply by being so headlong and entertaining. But Rachel, at the outset, isn’t there. This causes Toby to feel that he is ‘in trouble’. Not only is Rachel not in the bathroom, she is not at the yoga retreat where she said she was headed when she deposited Hannah and nine-year-old Solly in his apartment at 4 a.m. She has fallen off the face of the earth. Days become weeks. During these weeks Toby conceals her absence, tries to find her, begins an affair with a woman he meets via a dating app, performs liver surgery on the wife of a board member of the hospital at which he works, whose life-threatening condition could have been avoided if anyone had been paying attention, and reconnects with a college friend called Elizabeth ‘Libby’ Slater who is tasked, somewhat improbably, with narrating the novel from his perspective.
Libby starts coming into Manhattan from her home in New Jersey to hang around Toby and hear about his divorce. Her own marriage is stable and boring, like every other aspect of her life as a magazine writer turned stay at home mum. Somehow, though, the mere fact of Toby’s divorce tips her into an obsessive reconsideration of her own past and future – both of which are fine, more or less, except that she gave up her magazine job for reasons that never become clear. Even though Libby and Toby’s relationship is platonic and always has been, she behaves in every other way as though she’s having an affair. She starts smoking cigarettes and vaping weed and pining for her lost youth and her lost career; she dismisses stay at home mums: ‘When I told people what I did, they’d say, “Being a mother is the hardest job there is.” But it wasn’t. The hardest job there was was being a mother and having an actual job, with pants and a commuter train pass and pens and lipstick.’ No wonder, then, that she finds Toby’s troubles a source of near obsessive fascination. Less clear is how she becomes privy to his most intimate details, thoughts and dialogue, but again I imagine Brodesser-Akner’s editors throwing up their hands: move that Jenga brick and the whole thing really would come crashing down.
Toby looks for Rachel everywhere, including at the house in the Hamptons they bought when she started making big bucks at the talent agency. He mopes around Manhattan, ending up at Whole Foods, where he runs into some fellow parents from his children’s chichi private school. They provide him, finally, with a break in the case: one woman’s husband went to the same yoga retreat the weekend Rachel disappeared (Toby immediately assumes they were there together). And they also saw her recently, taking a nap? In Central Park? With a terrible new haircut?? Toby buys a jar of peanut butter and runs away into the novel’s second section.
Clutching the peanut butter he won’t eat because it contains sugar – his eating disorder, a result of his mother’s disapproval of his childhood fatness, means that he orders plain chicken breasts and dressingless salads throughout the book – Toby launches into a protracted reminiscence of his history with Rachel. He thinks about the way their relationship began, with a flirtatious pretend negotiation, and how their marriage at first seemed ‘blessed and golden’, ‘good! normal!’ in spite of a series of redder and redder flags. Rachel is described as husband-like: she refuses to be on time, to make her professional ambition subordinate to her marriage, to come home for dinner, to be friendly or even civil to Toby’s friends. She is essentially friendless; many ‘Or becauses’ are offered up to explain this, and some of them seem at first to contradict one another: she is either a victim of her love-starved orphaned childhood or is too nakedly ambitious and opinionated. And maybe she is too obviously hungry for friendship. This doesn’t square with what we see when Rachel finally enters the novel, as Toby recalls a scene that took place after she had been passed over for promotion at her old job. Coming home hours late for dinner, she rejects the soup he’s made and tells him she never liked going on the long walks that defined their early courtship. Most damningly, she doesn’t understand that she needs to protect his ego when she tells him that her boss once hit on her, and that this might be the reason she hasn’t been made partner. Instead of reassuring Toby that she’d rejected her boss’s advances, she mocks his need for reassurance: ‘I didn’t realise this was about you.’ It’s a perfect portrait of the kind of harshness that’s only possible in the privacy of marriage, where both parties are so interdependent that treating your partner badly doesn’t register as cruelty.
And then, in a few pages of clarity and concision, we see Rachel’s life shatter and realign. She is medically raped during the birth of their daughter, although no one in the book calls it that. ‘It was bad, but it wasn’t rape,’ Toby tells her, and she agrees with him, even though she continues going to a rape trauma survivors’ group. The details of her ordeal are vivid and enraging, especially because the quick, spiky way they’re rendered echoes the blunt suddenness of the trauma. Rachel’s blood pressure has spiked and labour has been induced, which means her contractions have magnified monstrously, but the labour’s still not progressing. Instead of shutting off the drip of pitocin, the doctor on duty says he’s going to examine her and then, without her consent, shoves his fingers past the opening of her undilated cervix and manually punctures the amniotic sac as she writhes and screams. Per hospital and insurance rules, because her waters have broken she must deliver the baby there. She does so via emergency C-section. Afterwards, harrowed and in shock, Rachel can’t even hold her new baby. She is no longer able to imagine that she’s in control of her life, and she crumbles.
She puts herself back together abruptly, and inscrutably; one night Toby comes home, expecting to find her convalescing, and discovers that she has left their baby with the nanny and opened her own agency, taking her biggest client (a lesbian Lin-Manuel Miranda stand-in) with her. This is the beginning of the end of their marriage; the mere fact that she earns more than Toby thrusts him into a caretaker role. He is at a disadvantage at work, where better assignments go to doctors who can work longer hours. Their marriage, like most marriages, requires two jobs but can only accommodate one career, and it’s not Toby’s.
What does Libby, the vaguely dissatisfied New Jersey housewife, make of all this? Whose side does she take, her friend Toby’s or her fellow female Rachel’s? We next see her in her natural habitat, hating herself and everyone around her at the pool: ‘Every family was just like mine: chubby, domineering mother; clueless, servile dad; disgusted child; happy-go-lucky child who just wants to know if the slide is open; sometimes there was a third child if the chubby, domineering mother and the clueless, servile dad had started early enough.’ It gets bleaker. She describes getting high at a party for the first time in years, then watching as the mums’ conversation, which was always about their kids, continued to be about their kids. ‘Even high, that was all they talked about. There was no other layer. There was no yearning. There was nothing beyond it.’ She invites Toby to New Jersey to witness all this, then goes back into the city with him; they’re supposed to meet up with a mutual friend from college. But on the train she gets frustrated that he never asks about her life. (The idea is that she has just noticed the one-sidedness of their relationship.) She goes to Central Park instead and thinks about her time on the men’s magazine, where she had never been interested in interviewing women; their stories were boring, all ‘about the struggle to be the kind of woman who got interviewed’, whereas the men’s stories were ‘about something more like the soul’. By writing about men, she is writing about women, though: not the boring women who all have the same story of struggle, but someone more interesting – herself. ‘Trojan horse yourself into a man, and people would give a shit about you,’ she says. This doesn’t quite add up. Are the men really more interesting to readers, or to Libby? ‘The men’s humanity was sexy and complicated; ours (mine) was to be kept in the dark at the bottom of the story and was only interesting in the service of the man’s humanity,’ she concludes. But that ‘ours (mine)’ is the problem. Libby only makes common cause with other women when she’s aggrieved or stands to gain from doing so; the rest of the time, she hates them just as much as – and maybe more than – men do.
The narrative balance shifts after Hannah gets kicked out of camp for texting a boy a photo of her preteen nipple. Toby has a rare moment of bravery as he shames the camp director and rescues his daughter. On their way home to the city he tells his children, finally, that he doesn’t know when their mother will be back. By this time he’s broken into her (formerly their) apartment and confirmed she’s alive and having an affair with one of their classmate’s fathers. It falls to Libby to tell us the rest of the story; helpfully, after staying out too late and spending the night at Toby’s, she goes for a bagel and runs into Rachel.
Until now, the reader has been almost forced to side with Toby. What kind of mother abandons her children with no explanation? As it turns out, Rachel has had a nervous breakdown, and in the process has jeopardised not only her relationship with her children but also her high-powered job. Losing Toby’s stabilising influence has unmoored her, it seems, and she has suffered a manic episode that leaves her unable to sleep or keep track of time. She drifts through Manhattan like a parody of the woman she was a few weeks earlier, showing up at SoulCycle on the wrong day, unwashed and with a Supercuts impulse haircut. The rape crisis group rejects her after she tells her birthing story. She shows up unannounced at a client’s apartment at 6 a.m. with a bodega turkey sandwich and finds out that she’s lost her biggest name to her sleazy former boss. The only thing that stops her spiral is Libby, who stays with her until she finally falls asleep.
Libby and Rachel grew up being told they could have everything they wanted, and both of them have learned how untrue that is, especially if heterosexual marriage is one of the things you think you want. Again, a litany (‘Or I wanted it mostly. Or I wanted it in the background’) takes the place of a resolution, as Libby deliberates whether she wants her own marriage, her own staid life. ‘Or maybe I would one day see that the regularness was actually quite extraordinary,’ she tells herself, but neither she nor the reader is buying it. The book ends in the same way that Libby told Toby a book about his life would: she has declared her intention to write a novel.