I’ve rarely read so many reviews of a novel before reading it as I had for Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s debut, Fleishman Is In Trouble, which has attracted a lot of mainstream acclaim but has also come in for a good deal of criticism, especially from the blogging community. The novel focuses principally on Toby Fleishman, a hepatologist living in New York who has recently separated from his wife, Rachel, and is trying to juggle the care of his two pre-teen children with his unexpectedly exciting explorations of internet dating apps when Rachel goes missing. Toby has a clear narrative of why his marriage failed. Rachel was too focused on her career, he thinks, never had enough time for him and the kids, and not-so-secretly despised the fact that he preferred focusing on patient care to seeking promotion within his field. However, two-thirds of the way through this novel, we hear a little more of Rachel’s side of the story, and see how Toby – and Rachel – may have been deliberately deceiving themselves.
In a number of ways, Fleishman Is In Trouble is a mess. Firstly, it utilises a totally unnecessary framing device where, however hard you thematically squint at it, you can’t quite see why it was needed. The novel is technically narrated by Libby, an old college friend of Toby’s, and there’s some suggestion that she may have made a great deal of this up, given that she obviously doesn’t have access to Toby and Rachel’s inner thoughts, and is toying with the idea of writing a novel about her friend group. Secondly, the flip from Toby to Rachel doesn’t quite make sense, structurally, partly because it occurs so late in the novel and partly because a lot of this final section still focuses on Toby. This is counterbalanced by the fact that Brodesser-Akner skilfully signals to us that Toby is an unreliable narrator, so we’ve already been reading between the lines of his narrative before we actually reach the ‘Rachel’ section of the novel, but this structural choice highlights the fact that the first two sections are just too long.
Nevertheless, I found myself unexpectedly warming to this novel in a way I’d never expected to warm to a literary novel about the breakdown of a marriage among New York’s privileged elite. I’d expected it to be a simplistic exposé of how awful a person Toby is, but Brodesser-Akner writes both Toby and Rachel as blinkered and selfish. Toby doesn’t get that, while he receives all the kudos for being such a hands-on dad, Rachel is still doing a huge amount of organisational work to make sure her children’s lives run smoothly behind the scenes, even if she doesn’t pick the kids up from school. Rachel is desperate to live an affluent, aspirational lifestyle and convinces herself that Toby wants this too, and that he’s selfish for forcing her to be the higher earner; however, Toby seems pretty content to live within his means, pointing out that as a doctor in a respected specialism, his salary is not exactly low. The crux of this novel, I think, occurs when Toby is standing by the bedside of a dying patient, reflecting on how her husband has both stayed by her side since she was hospitalised and has been cheating on her: ‘Toby watched him, unable to reconcile any of this. Was he a piece of shit or did he love his wife? Was he having an affair with her friend, who helped break up the marriage? Were we all everything?’
While not telling the reader who we are meant to sympathise with, and recognising that we are all sometimes terrible and sometimes exceptional people, might seem like a low bar for a novel to clear, I don’t think many writers approach this project with as much seriousness as Brodesser-Akner does in Fleishman Is In Trouble. Even when certain characters are allowed to not be all one thing or another, writers often signal to us who we should really be invested in. And perhaps this helps to explain the tangle of the framing narrative and the clunky structure of the novel as a whole; Brodesser-Akner is truly determined that we shouldn’t be able to fall back on easy judgments. Whenever we think we know whose ‘side’ we’re on, she executes another about-turn. I can’t totally agree that this novel was one of the must-read books of 2019, but I can see why it’s attracted so many different hot takes.
I’m aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist this year. This is number thirteen. I’ve already read Girl, Woman, Other; The Dutch House; Queenie; Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line; Nightingale Point; Dominicana; Girl; How We Disappeared; A Thousand Ships; Hamnet; Actress; and Weather.