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Fleishman Is in Trouble


Fleishman Is in Trouble

First of all, if you are of a certain age or have been married a certain amount of time --- or both --- and you can make it through the last dozen or so pages of Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s novel, FLEISHMAN IS IN TROUBLE, without a tear in your eye or a lump in your throat, you’re made of sterner stuff than I am. Or maybe you’re just more self-assured, or your marriage is more secure, or all of the above. And if you find yourself having thoughts like these, that’s kind of the point, since this brilliant debut is, in large part, about the nagging insecurity and fear that everyone else’s life, everyone else’s marriage, is somehow more successful and more fulfilling than your own.

I first encountered Brodesser-Akner’s writing via insightful and wonderfully written (and often painfully funny) profiles like the one she did of Gwyneth Paltrow’s GOOP conference for the New York Times. I love her journalistic style, so I was eager to see how that translated to fiction, and FLEISHMAN IS IN TROUBLE does not disappoint. It starts out as something fairly conventional. Toby Fleishman, as the title suggests, finds himself at a moment of crisis as the book opens. He has recently separated from his wife, Rachel, and the two of them have landed on a tense but workable custody arrangement for their two preteen children, Hannah and Solly. But this new détente is shattered when Toby awakens to discover that Rachel has, in the dead of night, let herself into his Manhattan apartment, dropped off the children --- and disappeared.

"...a truly masterful and often poignant examination of marriage and identity in midlife, as well as a brilliant example of how to structure a novel in surprising and innovative ways."

Toby is, on one level, not at all surprised. After all, if he had one complaint about Rachel, it’s that she lacks maternal instincts and has been a less-than-devoted mom to their kids. Toby has been the children’s primary caregiver; in their realm of Manhattan society, surrounded by finance bros and their socialite wives, being a doctor like Toby is hardly a respectable position. So even though he’s a passionate and respected hepatologist, Toby is the one who arranges playdates, cooks dinner, and shuttles the children to their day camps and Hebrew classes. Rachel, meanwhile, focuses on the talent agency she owns, and on making enough money to maintain the Fleishmans’ extremely comfortable lifestyle.

Rachel’s abrupt disappearance annoys Toby, not only because he is up for a promotion in his department and is caring for a patient with an extremely rare liver disease. His new role as sole caregiver for their children puts a serious crimp in his newfound online dating life. Toby, who hasn’t dated anyone since he met Rachel in graduate school, is now inundated with sexy photos and texts from the seemingly infinite number of women in his geographic vicinity who just can’t wait to fall into bed with him. Toby, a one-time fat kid (and current short man, as he continually reminds readers), can’t believe his good fortune as he explores what he’s been missing all these years.

As readers come to know (and sympathize with) Toby, something very odd (and eventually even more interesting than Toby’s story) starts to happen in the narrative. The narrator --- who we come to learn is Toby’s college friend and former journalist, Libby --- begins to insert herself into the story. This is no ordinary omniscient narrator; Libby gradually becomes not only the one who is telling Toby’s story but also an integral part of the narrative she is crafting. “That was what I knew for sure,” Libby notes, “that this was the only way to get someone to listen to a woman --- to tell her story through a man.” Eventually, too, she is the one who calls out Toby’s weaknesses and throws into question the reader’s sympathy for him --- and to delve into the novel’s political and emotional truths.

Brodesser-Akner’s eye for detail and skillful craftsmanship shines through every sentence. Small details such as the hilarious fitness shirts worn by the moms in Toby and Rachel’s circle (“LIPSTICK & LUNGES” is one slogan) or the “Hamilton”-esque musical written by one of Rachel’s clients, not to mention the author’s knack for describing characters’ physical traits, clothing and musical tastes, help ground the book and make it extremely funny. But FLEISHMAN IS IN TROUBLE is also a truly masterful and often poignant examination of marriage and identity in midlife, as well as a brilliant example of how to structure a novel in surprising and innovative ways.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on June 21, 2019

Fleishman Is in Trouble
by Taffy Brodesser-Akner

  • Publication Date: June 18, 2019
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Random House
  • ISBN-10: 0525510877
  • ISBN-13: 9780525510871