Remember, a few years ago (pre-pandemic, if you can believe it), there was a book EVERYONE was talking about? It was Fleishman Is In Trouble, Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s debut novel, the book that Elizabeth Gilbert called “utter perfection”. It provided book club conversation fodder for months. I might be the last person in the world to get around to reading it, but here we are!
At first glance, Fleishman Is In Trouble looks like your stock-standard New York divorce novel. A privileged couple – he’s a doctor, she’s a talent agent/manager – sniping at each other and using their kids like battering rams in the dissolution of their marriage. But by the end of the first chapter, you’ll realise that this is something different, something special. It’s a bait-and-switch in that regard, a bit like Kiley Reid’s Such A Fun Age (a serious book packaged as a beach read).
Toby Fleishman is 41 years old, newly almost-divorced, and swiping through dating apps like a starving man let loose in a supermarket. His sexting comes to an abrupt halt when his soon-to-be-ex-wife Rachel drops their children off at his apartment in the middle of the night while he’s asleep, and promptly disappears.
Seriously, she’s just gone. Rachel doesn’t answer calls, doesn’t answer texts, even her assistant won’t tell Toby where she is or when she’s coming back. When faced with questions like whether to send the kids away to sleep-away camp, or whether to fire their beloved nanny, Toby has to muddle through alone – often having imaginary arguments with Rachel in his head, imagining what she’d say about his choices. Worst of all, he has to answer the kids’ questions about where their mother has gone, and why she hasn’t called them. Fleishman is in trouble, alright.
The most interesting part (if that mystery isn’t enough to get you hooked) is the narrative point of view. It’s first person, masquerading as close-third person. Fleishman Is In Trouble isn’t narrated by either of the central players, but by Libby, an old friend of Toby’s and a former journalist with her own blind-spots and biases. Her version of events isn’t unreliable, though, so much as… well, open to interpretation.
Libby only gradually emerges as a character in her own right once the story is well underway. At first, she’s simply telling Toby’s story, but gradually her own point of view makes its way in – and Rachel’s, too. This is a deliberate choice by Brodesser-Akner. She’s styled Fleishman Is In Trouble as one of the old-school long-form celebrity profiles that would appear in The New York Times (where she used to work).
Your allegiances will shift throughout the novel – mine did, anyway – from page to page, even paragraph to paragraph. Both Toby and Rachel have legitimate grievances with each other, and both of them pretty much suck. Libby isn’t always a peach, either. But that’s what makes Fleishman Is In Trouble so compelling: these are people we recognise, people whose choices aren’t unfathomable but aren’t flawless, either.
You wouldn’t think it, but Fleishman Is In Trouble – a novel that focuses on a man’s experience and male sexuality – is a feminist novel. Brodesser-Akner’s social commentary plays out on multiple levels. There’s the story itself, which explicitly addresses feminist subjects like birth trauma (trigger warning!) and women in the workplace, and also how it’s told, with women used as a vehicle to transport the centered male. She’s not subtle about it: at one point, Libby actually tells the reader “the only way to get someone to listen to a woman [is] to tell her story through a man”. It’s a little girl boss-y at times, sure, but the simultaneous interrogation of class and race and religion in relationships adds depth.
What I’m saying is that Fleishman Is In Trouble is multi-layered. I haven’t re-read it (yet), but I’m sure it’s one of those books you can read over and over again and get something different out of it every time. I found it to be quite a tense read, with a lot of back-and-forth (in the timeline, yes, but also emotionally). Beware of triggering depression or anxiety towards the end, particularly if you’re prone to existential angst.
And, of course, there’s the adaptation – a limited series that Brodesser-Akner adapted for the screen herself. It came out late last year, and even if I’d never heard of Fleishman Is In Trouble, I’d want to watch it for the cast alone. Jesse Eisenberg, Claire Danes, Lizzy Caplan, Adam Brody – yes, please! I’ve been holding off until I read and reviewed the book, and now, there’s nothing stopping me.
Another book that actually lives up to the hype – huzzah!
My favourite Amazon reviews of Fleishman Is In Trouble:
- “What happens to poor Fleishman? Oh, the author eats him, replacing him with a boring character based on ……Don’t bother reading to find out, this is a time waster.” – oldbroom
- “Fleishman is so busy masterbating I lost track of what the story was, if there is one. And who is telling the story, that’s confusing. Fleishman is a doctor who goes around with a constant boner until he masterbates again, which he does often. Save your money on this one.” – cactusgal
- “I read until I found out why Fleishman is in trouble, but I won’t be reading the rest. I never read or watched 50 Shades of Grey, but this seems to be of the same thread.” – Delaney Spencer
- “Two stars for making me thankful my middle age crisis wasn’t as bad or painfully boring as this novel.” – dmongosa