Book Review: ‘Fleishman Is In Trouble’ by Taffy Brodesser-Akner
Divorce is messy. But humans are messier.
“He understood divorce in a macro way, of course. But he had not yet adjusted to it in a micro way, in the other-side-of-the-bed-being-empty way, in the nobody-to-tell-you-were-running-late way, in the you-belong-to-no-one way.” That’s Toby Fleishman talking. The fictional central character of Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s debut novel ‘Fleishman Is In Trouble’ that was widely-dubbed “the book of the summer”. Brodesser-Akner is a celebrity profiler (her feature on Gwenyth Paltrow’s Goop empire went viral) and staff writer at The New York Times Magazine, and it’s perhaps her decades-long experience of observing others that allowed her to write a book that is so uncomfortably accurate and compulsively readable that I couldn’t put it down.
On paper, we probably shouldn’t like Toby Fleishman. He’s a 40-something, recently-divorced doctor at a major New York hospital who frequently orders chicken breast cooked without oil and salad with no dressing and burgers with no bun, and he earns a six-figure salary. He’s the kind of guy who says “holy moly” instead of “holy shit”. But Fleishman is in trouble, and you just can’t help but feel sorry for the guy. His ex-wife Rachel, “a sociopath who used to flounce through their home like a special guest star and wore gym tops that said things like LIPSTICK AND LUNGES”, left the kids at his apartment so she could swan off to an exclusive yoga retreat and then just never came back. He’s well under 6ft and highly paranoid about it. Like, he feels personally offended when he meets a woman who is “unnecessarily tall”, but not in the way that makes you think he’s an asshole with an ego that needs stroking, just in the way that means he’s a guy who’s already aware of his short-comings and being surprisingly short is annoying.
Brodesser-Akner’s quick wit and ability to comment so perfectly on modern life is most apparent when she’s describing Toby’s experience with dating apps – an experience he can’t quite fathom is happening to someone as average as himself: “Yes, who could have predicted that Toby Fleishman, at the age of forty-one, would find that his phone was aglow from sunup to sundown with texts that contained G-strings and underboob and sideboob and just straight-up boob and all the parts of a woman he never dared dream he would encounter in a person who was three-dimensional.” When he went on his first date after the divorce and kissed a woman on their way home, he couldn’t believe his luck. He and Rachel had stopped kissing long ago. “Even in the best of times, Rachel was all business when it came to sex; she didn’t have time for extras. But this was different, and not just because it wasn’t sex. It was the strange feeling of taking ice skates off after wearing them for hours and walking on plain ground – you know how to do it but it’s different.”
The narrator, who sympathetically unpacks Toby’s side of the story, is his college friend Libby who maintains an elusive presence for most of the book until she suddenly realises – almost at the same time the reader does- that she really is only telling his side of the story. That she hasn’t even heard Rachel’s side because she never really liked Rachel so she never bothered to ask. When did she, and us, become so laser-focused on Fleishman’s trouble? Yes Rachel sounds like a bitch, but Toby isn’t perfect either. He’s a newly-single, borderline orthorexic, devoted father hellbent on having sex seven nights a week. It’s so disarming for a female author to write so vividly and accurately about the male experience and essentially push the female characters to the periphery for much of the book.
As Claire Fallon of The Huffington Post put it, “Just like the smash-hit suspense novels ‘Gone Girl’ and ‘The Girl On The Train’, this is a book about how we don’t really see women for who they are. The mystery of the book is: what are women really up to? Who are they really? In domestic thrillers, the answer might be that they’re more evil than we believe possible. In Brodesser-Akner’s hands, it matters less what the answer is than how rarely we bother to ask.”