This razor-sharp, shrewdly observed novel about marriage, divorce and middle-age malaise provoked a whole range of reactions in me. I was engrossed at first, then a tad frustrated, and finally appreciative when I realised what a clever Trojan horse of a story it really was.
I discovered Fleishman Is in Trouble when I watched a YouTube review of the TV series by the same name, with Jesse Eisenberg and Claire Danes as a couple going through a bitter divorce. I still want to check out the series, and see how closely it matches the very distinctive tone of the book.
The novel is split into three unequal parts, with Part One reading like a very entertaining, very funny adventure in online dating of one Toby Fleishman, a 41-year-old hepatologist in New York City. Having just recently split from his wife Rachel, Toby is astonished to discover that the city is positively crawling with women who’d love to sleep with him. The only wrinkle in his new amazing life of dating apps and casual sex is that one morning, Rachel disappears after dropping off their children at Toby’s at 4am, leaving him to juggle distressed kids, hospital duties, and his phone with texts that contained G-string and ass cleavage and underboob and sideboob and just straight-up boob.
The book had me instantly hooked with its sparkling, witty and punchy prose. Early on, we also meet the narrator of the story, an old college friend of Toby’s who first met him in Israel but lost touch after they both got married and had kids. Interestingly, my first impression was that Toby’s friend, who turned out to be a woman named Libby, was actually a man. In fact, since I didn’t take a close look at the writer’s name, I also assumed that the novel was in fact written by a man. Later I read that Brodesser-Akner’s debut earned comparisons with Jonathan Franzen and Philip Roth, so perhaps my assumptions didn’t entirely come out of a blue. There’s a kind of propulsive swagger about her writing that I’d more easily associate with a male author.
Through Libby’s narration we find out more about Fleishmans’ marriage, most significantly that it was a marriage of reversed gender roles, with Rachel making seven-figure income that supports the entire family. From Toby’s perspective, his role was that of a martyr who did most of the child care while Rachel was busy with her career and social climbing, and had the integrity to follow his heart and remain in a lower-paying position that allowed him to stay hands-on in his patients’ lives. As a reader, you of course suspect that there must be two sides to every story, and that Rachel is probably not the irredeemable, cold monster she’s made out to be. You also pick up on Toby’s simmering anger and insecurities, and that he perhaps has trouble seeing other people – including his friends – as people in their own right, with their own feelings and concerns.
As the novel progressed, I noticed that Libby wasn’t quite content to stay in her Nick Carraway-style narrator role, increasingly intruding into the story. We learn that she used to work as a writer for a men’s magazine, that she is unhappy in her role as a suburban stay-at-home mum, and seems to be in a grip of a midlife crisis. I admit that I got increasingly annoyed with these diversions into Libby-world, when all I wanted was for the book to stay on course and concentrate on Toby and Rachel.
This was also when Toby’s online adventures and workplace dramas began to feel a tad repetitive, and so overall I felt like I lost some of my early enthusiasm for the book. There’s an early hint however that Libby’s intrusions have a point and purpose, in paragraphs where she describes writing for the men’s magazine:
“That was what I knew for sure, that this was the only way to get someone to listen to a woman – to tell her story through a man; Trojan horse yourself into a man, and people would give a shit about you. My voice only came alive when I was talking about someone else.”
When the novel finally pulled back the curtain on both Rachel and Libby near the end, I was finally able to appreciate the author’s intent. The closing chapters have some powerful and compelling things to say about ambitious women and marriage, not necessarily all negative (for a novel about divorce, its view of marriage is not all doom and gloom).
I also appreciated the empathetic treatment Brodesser-Akner gives all of her characters, no matter how flawed and unlikeable. At times your empathy as a reader may be tested by the insular New York Upper East Side bubble, where Toby’s quarter-million salary as a doctor makes him an object of pity; forget First World problems, this is more like 0.1% of the First World. There’s no acknowledgement or awareness on the part of some characters that there might be different perspectives, priorities and ways to live, and I never got a sense that the novel was meant to be explicitly satirical, either.
In the end, Fleishman Is in Trouble turned out to be a kind of book I really like, a twisty story about messy modern relationships and complexity of the human experience, full of insights and barbed wit. Better still, it’s definitely a book that invites a second reading at least.