Facing Middle Age in ‘Fleishman Is in Trouble’
Fleishman Is in Trouble: A Novel By Taffy Brodesser-Akner (Random House, 373 pp. $27)
“Toby Fleishman awoke one morning inside the city he’d lived in all his adult life and which was suddenly somehow now crawling with women who wanted him.” Thus begins Fleishman Is in Trouble, perhaps the saddest funny book I have ever read. Before rising from bed, Toby checks the dating app on his phone. Instead, he discovers a message from his almost-ex-wife, Rachel: “I’m headed to Kripalu for the weekend; the kids are at your place FYI.” Rachel has dropped off the children at Toby’s apartment in the middle of the night.
Fleishman Is in Trouble turns the familiar divorce story on its head. Set on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, it is Rachel, a talent agent, who earns the big bucks, while Toby, a physician, has neglected his career to be available for day-to-day parenting. When Rachel goes to Kripalu—the tony yoga retreat in the Berkshire Mountains in Massachusetts—and stops answering her phone. Toby is left to juggle job, meals and nannies while trying to protect his children from the devastation of abandonment.
This novel delves deeply into Philip Roth territory: sex and masturbation; insecurities, self-hatred and guilt; and seeming contempt for women, especially Jewish wives and mothers. Like Roth, Taffy Brodesser-Akner uses a narrator alter ego to tell this story—Toby’s longtime friend Libby, whose past career as a writer for a men’s magazine feels suspiciously like Brodesser-Akner’s past at GQ and ESPN The Magazine.
This a book about marriage, here defined as the search for someone who finds you lovable. Then, it is a book about divorce, which happens after your spouse, by marrying you, proves you’re lovable enough. “[O]nce this need is fulfilled, you can for the first time wonder if you ever wanted to be married or not.”
This is also a book about things not being what they seem. For 300 pages, narrator Libby relates Toby’s story of Rachel, the vicious, angry, animalistic wife who has tragically wronged him. The remaining 75 pages move into Rachel and Libby’s heads. Suddenly, we hear the women’s voices, and these women cry for their inability to have it all. They lament “the overwhelming unfairness of what happens to a woman’s status and body and position in the culture once she’s a mother.”
So, is this a feminist manifesto or a denunciation of feminism’s failures? It’s a book about men and women facing middle age. (You will be able to share the couple’s angst when an adaptation of the book appears on FX television as a limited series. It has also been nominated for a National Book Award.) Rachel and Libby mourn what they see as feminism’s false promise “that we could do anything we wanted.”
And Toby shares their same grief.
Elizabeth Edelglass is a Judaic librarian, fiction writer and book reviewer living in Connecticut.