Review: Fleishman is in Trouble

Next up from the Women’s Prize longlist, I chose a title I was somewhat dreading. There have been a lot of mixed reviews going around for Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s debut novel Fleishman is in Trouble, especially after its National Book Award shortlisting a few months ago and now it’s nomination for the Women’s Prize. I wasn’t sure this book was going to be a good fit for me, but I ended up really liking it!

fleishmanisintroubleIn the novel, Toby Fleishman wakes up one morning to a text from his (almost ex) wife, saying she dropped the kids off at 4am, a day early for Toby’s weekend with them. He complains, she tells him to deal with it, and then she disappears. She doesn’t answer his messages or calls, she doesn’t pick the kids up on Monday, she bails on their planned holiday, and none of her assistants or employees or clients or friends seem to have a clue where she is or what she’s doing. Toby fumes. But of course, there’s more to the story than he knows.

“He got some pleasure thinking of Rachel arriving to pick up the kids to find out they weren’t even here. He participated in an extended fantasy about moving to another city with the children and letting her figure it out.”

I might as well say right out that if you don’t enjoy reading about unlikable characters, this will not be the book for you. Aside from the kids, every single main character in this book (and most of the secondary characters as well) is deeply flawed and largely unsympathetic. There’s plenty of pending-divorce bitterness between Toby and his wife, but their loathsomeness goes beyond finding fault with each other. Most of the book follows Toby’s experience, so he’s the one we get to hate the most: for the way he objectifies the women on his dating app, for his failure to see his patients and team of fellows at the hospital as real people, for his assumptions about the other parents at his kids’ school, for the friends he keeps, for every one of his self-centered actions and impressions. There’s no one to root for here, though Brodesser-Akner does an excellent job of humanizing each of them instead of painting them as simple villainous caricatures.

There’s also very little plot, so if you’re looking for a fast pace and plenty of action, you’ll want to look elsewhere for that, too. Though this book takes place over the course of about a month, we mainly see Fleishman going about his day-to-day life, dealing with the same questions over and over again. ‘How are things progressing at the hospital today?’ ‘What do I need to do with the kids today?’ ‘How can I get laid today?’ etc. We know his wife is missing, but until we are given direct access to her whereabouts toward the end of the book, it’s just a looming question and not even a proper mystery. One of my greatest criticisms, actually, is that I think this book is longer than it needs to be to get its messages across.

But Fleishman is in Trouble does have two things going for it.

The first is the commentary. This is, essentially, a book about marriage and divorce. It’s also about societal expectations of men vs women, in their careers, in their love lives, in their approaches to parenthood. The Fleishmans are a wealthy couple, so we also see a lot of the elite New York scene, the private schools and nannies and tutors for the kids, the second (and third and fourth) fancy homes, the bosses who can get away with anything and the wives who insist that choosing which charities to donate to and which boards to sit on counts as “work.” Brodesser-Akner takes the rich lives so many seem to desire and aspire to and pokes them full of holes, in an absolutely glorious way. Yes, Fleishman is an asshole, but through his assholery we see how men are given certain allowances that women aren’t, and how even in unspoken thoughts there are expectations of what is and isn’t acceptable for men or women, and the toll that those expectations take.

“Whatever kind of woman you are, even when you’re a lot of kinds of women, you’re still always just a woman, which is to say you’re always a little bit less than a man.”

The second is the structure. Fleishman is in Trouble features, mainly, the Fleishmans’ crumbling marriage. And yet, though inner thoughts are attributed to both of them and the reader is given a very intimate look at both of their lives over the course of this month, neither of them is a narrator. Instead, the entire book is narrated by Toby’s college friend, Libby. The attention given to each comes in at about 80% Toby, 15% Toby’s wife, and 5% Libby; this distribution and the awkwardness of the first-person “I” inside that frame didn’t entirely work for me. I found Libby’s sudden intrusions into the story annoying and distracting until the pieces came together in the end- through most of the novel I found it hard to remember who she was and why she was relevant- but ultimately I do think this is Libby’s story rather than either of the Fleishmans’. I’ve gone over and over whether or not to explain my take on the perspective here, because it is something that’s revealed toward the end of the novel and really makes the book, in my opinion. And yet, in a lot of the reviews I’ve seen, this theory doesn’t come up often and so I’d like to put my thoughts out there for those who have read it and are curious.

To that effect, SKIP this paragraph if you’re worried about potential spoilers, because I am going to say a little more on Libby’s narration here: > In the end, I think that this book is Libby’s way of exploring whether she should or should not divorce her own husband. It seems counter-intuitive because Libby and her marriage take a back seat while the Fleishmans are the clear frontrunners, but hear me out. Libby is a stay-at-home mom who writes fiction in an attempt to keep working, to make something for herself, and to escape a perfectly adequate home life that she finds boring and stifling. She says, in the text, that she is writing a coming of age story about her youth, but that she is seemingly incapable of writing directly about herself. Toby is a part of her youth, a close friend that maybe could have been more if he wasn’t so short. She sees his crumbling marriage as an opportunity for herself, maybe to reignite an old flame, maybe just to follow his lead. She uses what she sees happening to him, and fills it with her own anxieties and disappointments and unhappy experiences from her marriage. It’s a thought experiment, on whether or not she should shake up her own life. This is my take.

End spoilers.

I think it’s a brilliant concept, if I’m at all correct. It didn’t fully come together for me in the actual execution, but I’m very impressed with the attempt.

“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.”

Something else I want to address is an experience I didn’t have with this novel, that many other readers seem to: that despite Toby’s loathsomeness, he is a sympathetic character in many readers’ eyes until his wife’s narrative suddenly upturns the situation that Toby has laid out, in which he paints himself as the victim in the divorce. Having read more reviews for this book (and more closely) before picking it up than I normally would, I knew going in not to take Toby’s word at face value. Because I knew that Toby was only one side of this argument and not necessarily the correct side, I was not surprised then to read about what had actually been happening with his wife, when her situation is revealed. I do not think I lost anything in the reading experience by refusing to sympathize with Toby early on- I think Brodesser-Akner’s writing and commentary carries the book even without that surprise, and I am not entirely convinced that this surprise is the book’s intent. (I would love to hear your thoughts on this if you’ve read the book!)

In the end, I can see why this has been (and continues to be) such a divisive book; it certainly won’t work for everyone, regardless of whether the reader closes the book with a sense of understanding its purpose or not. There are a lot of bold moves taken here, starting with how insufferable the characters are, but certainly not ending there. And yet… I enjoyed the read. I appreciated Brodesser-Akner’s writing, I had a lot of fun hating these characters, and the commentary did challenge my views of marriage, divorce, and societal expectations. If you’d rather read something with positivity and a straightforward structure, don’t pick this one up. But for the right reader… I think Fleishman is in Trouble can be a very impressive novel indeed.

“We fall in love and we decide to marry in this one incredible moment, and what if everything that happens after that is about trying to remember that moment? We watch ourselves and our spouses change, and the work is to constantly recall the reasons you did this in the first place. Why is that honorable, to live in service of a moment you have to constantly work so hard to remember?”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I had very low expectations for this one, and was so pleasantly surprised by the time I finished it. I would actually be happy to see this book shortlisted, and I will definitely be keeping an eye out for whatever Brodesser-Akner writes next. I am thrilled that this year’s Women’s Prize longlist finally convinced me to pick up this book, which I’d been on the fence about for a long time; it’s been one of my favorite longlist experiences so far!

 

The Literary Elephant

30 thoughts on “Review: Fleishman is in Trouble”

    1. That’s exactly how I felt before the WP longlist convinced me to pick it up. It did ultimately work for me, but I’m so hesitant to recommend it to anyone because it’s a book that really doesn’t make any effort to bring enjoyment to the reader- perhaps even the opposite is true… In the end it may do some good and interesting things, but I think it comes at the cost of putting up with the unpleasant characters and a lot of difficulty in parsing the framing of the novel, so if those elements would bother you it might not feel worth it in the end. If you do end up picking it up at some point, I hope you’ll have as much luck with it as I did!

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  1. I’m so glad you liked this! I wasn’t sure if I would pick this up but your positive review has convinced me. I actually like sympathetic, unlikeable characters, so I have a feeling I may be with you on this one. (I skipped the spoilers part but I plan on reading your thoughts when I’ve finished.) Wonderful review, Emily. šŸ™‚

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    1. Thanks so much! I had such low expectations for this book and then turned out to have such a surprisingly good experience with it. I really hope you’ll have the same good luck! It can definitely be a challenging read because of the characters and structure, but I really think it’s so well-written and ultimately worthwhile if you can get past those tougher elements. I hope you enjoy it if you do pick it up, and I’d love to chat spoilers with you later on! šŸ™‚

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  2. I am now actually excited to check this one out, just to see how I feel. I do find reading about unlikeable female characters a lot easier than unlikeable male characters (oops) which is why I was worried about this one, but the way you explained it seems that the commentary can really make this book for me. And I am now super intrigued about those spoilers (which I skipped, but I’ll come back to them when I read the book). Great review!

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    1. Thank you! I hope you’ll also have a good time with this one, I think it can be a surprisingly enjoyable read! The gender commentary is very strong, and even the unlikable male characters (which I can fully relate to not liking as much in general, lol) are there to reinforce how unfair societal expectations are for women, so they serve a good purpose. šŸ™‚ And I’d love to chat spoilers after you’ve read the book!

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  3. Really interesting review! I have a copy of this waiting on my shelf, so I’m glad that you had a better time with it than you expected. Your comments on the narrator’s perspective make me keener to check this out than I was before.

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    1. Thanks! šŸ™‚ I’ve really been enjoying unusual framing devices this year so the perspective really intrigued me. I hope you’ll have a good time with this one as well, I think it does have a lot to offer!

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  4. I’m surprised that readers are expecting to like one of the individuals in the divorce. Typically, in a first-person story, the person who is getting divorced and telling their side thinks they are correct. However, in real life, you would think most people getting divorced are wrong on both sides for the same or different reasons. I always find it odd when readers try to force someone in a book to be likable, and I’m glad to see you’re not one of those readers!

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    1. I also find it frustrating when readers complain about not finding the characters likable or relatable, especially with books where it seems clear (to me at least) that that’s not really the intent. A lot can be done with an unlikable character! Which is the case with this book. It does seem obvious at least theoretically that there are two sides to every divorce and potentially a lot of misunderstanding going both ways, so it does open up an interesting avenue for thought that so many readers are shocked to discover that one of the Fleishmans isn’t telling the full story. This is another way I think a third party narrator serves the book well- neither Fleishman can be impartial.

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      1. Did you ever read Tampa by Alyssa Nutting? There were zero likable people in that book, yet I found it fascinating. Nutting based it on a real-life story about a woman she had gone to school with. This woman was a middle school teacher in her twenties, and she was quite attractive. She began a sexual relationship with a student, but people really downplayed the severity of it because if you are a teen boy having sex with your hot teacher, then “you’re the man” as opposed to being a rape victim, which we would certainly say if the genders were swapped.

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      2. I had not heard of Tampa, but it sounds right in line with my reading taste- adding it to my TBR now! Thanks for mentioning it!

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      3. I saw you added it on Goodreads. I think it goes perfectly with your standard reading. Nutting is really interesting. She writes each book as if she is a different human being. Her collection of short stories was fun and snappy, she has a novel that is futuristic and satire, and then this deeply serious book about a sexual predator like Humbert Humbert.

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      4. That sounds excellent! I am always most impressed by authors who manage to turn out such utterly different works. And I did think Lolita was incredible. Dark and disturbing, but incredible.

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  5. This is a great, thoughtful review! I had very similar thoughts on this book – especially not once thinking that Toby was a sympathetic or reliable narrator. Also, I love your theory about Libby’s narration! That hadn’t occurred to me, but you make a great case for it! (although I’m in a minority of people who didn’t mind Libby as the narrator anyway haha)

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    1. Thanks so much! I’m glad to find another reader who mostly agrees with me, it seems there are tons of different opinions on what this books is doing and whether it accomplishes it! It took until the end for Libby’s narration to really click for me but once I felt like I understood its purpose I did up feeling pretty passionate about her and the story as a whole.

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    1. Ha, thanks! I did end up liking what I thought the author was doing with underlying commentary, but I can definitely agree that the characters are insufferable and the messages are mostly negative so I can see why it’s not working for everyone!

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      1. I think this is one where you either like it or you don’t. I haven’t really seen an inbetween. But that’s what makes the world of reading exciting, different tastes for everyone!!

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