Review: Fleishman Is In Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner

What would happen if a married woman behaved like a man? That is the premise behind Fleishman Is In Trouble. Toby Fleishman’s wife Rachel has disappeared. She left for a weekend yoga retreat in upstate New York and hasn’t come back, leaving Toby juggle their two young children, Hannah and Solly, his patients at the hospital, and his dating apps full of horny New York women. A dazed Toby wanders around the Upper Eastside trying to figure out what on earth went wrong with his marriage.

Rachel, who would be played by Michelle Williams in a movie adaptation, was the breadwinner of the family. Through her talent agency, she is said to earn something in the range of 15 times Toby’s doctor salary, which itself is nothing to sniff at (US$285,000 per year, putting hers at, what, $4.2 million?!). Thanks to her money they are knocking at the door of New York’s unfathomably wealthy, the Rothbergs, the Leffers etc. But Rachel’s career drive and social aspirations seem to have driven a wedge through their marriage. Rachel belittles Toby for his lack of ambition, for his noble desire to help and heal, even while the other school mums reward him with simpering comments about him being a modern dad.

On and on the novel goes about the sufferings of poor, befuddled and, worst-of-all, short, Toby. His 11-year-old daughter hates him. His 9-year-old son is watching porn. He’s trying not to get too entangled with women he just wants to have sex with. Do we really need another story about dating in New York or the dissolution of the heterosexual American marriage or the crisis of American masculinity? Still, there are hints that something more interesting is going on. The novel is narrated by one of Toby’s college friends, Elizabeth Epstein, once a writer for a men’s magazine, now a stay-at-home mum. Even though Elizabeth is clearly on Toby’s side, we get little glimpses of an alternative view. Rachel, for instance, constantly accuses Toby of “anger”, although we rarely see it on the page.

So when at last the novel shifts perspective, it comes as a relief. In Australia at least, female breadwinners continue to do more unpaid labour than their male partners, so it didn’t quite ring true that Rachel was the cold-hearted career bitch Toby portrays her as, and indeed it proves not to be the case. There are some awful things at the heart of this story, and Brodesser-Akner’s depiction of Rachel’s childhood and married life is raw, horrifying and very sad. It is a particularly compelling portrait of a severe mental health crisis.

Fleishman In Trouble is at its heart an economic novel, and I quite enjoyed the chill this lends it. People make their choice of partner based on salaries and aspirations, which neighbourhood they want to live in, which school camp they want their kids to attend. Even sex is an economic equation; newly-divorced Toby is a scarcity in a city with a surplus of single women. Still, I couldn’t quite stomach the idea that Toby is somehow less-than-well off on his $285,000 salary, as the novel heavily implies. To enjoy this novel you have to get a certain amount of enjoyment out of rich people tearing each other to shreds, but after a while it all becomes a bit vulgar. There’s little sense of a world beyond the Upper East beyond a few token poor people (an Ecuadorian maid, a beggar in Jerusalem), and I don’t think the novel is doing anything more than gesturing to some conceptual link between the sickness in the Fleishman’s marriage and the sickness in the world.

The novel is far more interesting when it comes to relationships between the sexes, although it is a pretty bleak and familiar analysis. Women, told that that they can have it all, find themselves stretched impossibly thin in a world where men have not taken on any of the burden. “She’d create time,” the narrator notes of Rachel’s aspirations upon liberation from her marriage. “The only way to get someone to listen to a woman,” Elizabeth notes, is “to tell her story through a man – Trojan horse yourself into a man, and people would give a shit about you,” and the novel largely commits to this idea.

It’s an often funny book (Hr, the name of one Toby’s fictional dating apps, is particularly good) and there are many pointed observations. Even so, it’s a bit of a slog, and overall I found it a bit tedious, although it’s one of those books where the tedium is the point. It doesn’t quite make sense the Elizabeth knows all she does, unless it is heavily fictionalised (a problem this book has in common with the Pultizer-winning Less). I disliked the much-hyped Marriage Story (except for Laura Dern’s stilettos), so perhaps it’s my own fault for hoping to be more compelled by this.

Gay rating: a couple of token gay characters who aren’t named

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