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!
In 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.
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