Fleishman Is in Trouble
December 10, 2019 8:49 AM - by Taffy Brodesser-Akner - Subscribe

Toby Fleishman thought he knew what to expect when he and his wife of almost fifteen years separated: weekends and every other holiday with the kids, some residual bitterness, the occasional moment of tension in their co-parenting negotiations. He could not have predicted that one day, in the middle of his summer of sexual emancipation, Rachel would just drop their two children off at his place and simply not return. He had been working so hard to find equilibrium in his single life. The winds of his optimism, long dormant, had finally begun to pick up. Now this. Taffy Brodesser-Akner's first novel.

As Toby tries to figure out where Rachel went, all while juggling his patients at the hospital, his never-ending parental duties, and his new app-assisted sexual popularity, his tidy narrative of the spurned husband with the too-ambitious wife is his sole consolation. But if Toby ever wants to truly understand what happened to Rachel and what happened to his marriage, he is going to have to consider that he might not have seen things all that clearly in the first place.
posted by the man of twists and turns (12 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
This has made some Top 10 lists.
posted by Chrysostom at 9:58 AM on December 10, 2019

Will I like this book if I hate, say, Updike? Because this sounds like it might be a nice little assassination of tweedy, affluent white men.
posted by Don.Kinsayder at 11:15 AM on December 11, 2019

I wouldn't recommend it unless you really want to spend hundreds of pages in a shitty man's point of view (but don't worry - everyone else is shitty too!). It's not as much of an assassination as one might hope, I think.
posted by dinty_moore at 11:25 AM on December 11, 2019 [3 favorites]

Ah, okay. Thanks.
posted by Don.Kinsayder at 1:26 PM on December 11, 2019

I liked this, but I think it suffered from a little from first-book-itis, where the narrator is a woman who writes feature profiles for a men's magazine.
Much of the book is spent following Toby around, and I was sympathetic-but-skeptical, right up until in one of his little self-justificatory spiels he says something like "so what if I threw a few plates, I was upset!" and a few other things clicked and his self-regard rang a lot more hollow after that. Probably that was the unavoidable step, and the rest of it (his misread with the intern/resident[?], his recounting of the job offer, although working big pharma to crush medical mj, no thanks, his apparent regard of his kids as an imposition on his lifestyle) I could have cottoned onto earlier.
Rachel was a little less sketched out, and I don't know if that's a function of how much less time we spend with her, or what.
I like TBA's style in her magazine pieces, so I knew what to expect.
And the narrator - the book is really about her perspective too, buts its buried underneath, like dribs and drabs of a profile writer revealed in her interviews over a career....

Fleishman IS In Trouble, but maybe more one than the other....
posted by the man of twists and turns at 1:51 PM on December 11, 2019 [2 favorites]

I hated this novel, and when I texted as much to my friend who recommended it, her response was, "I know, I hated it too, but I wanted to talk to you about it "
posted by purpleclover at 7:14 PM on December 12, 2019 [7 favorites]

Heh. I wouldn’t say I hated it, but I have very mixed feelings about this book. I’ve recommended it to a couple of friends specifically because I want to discuss it with them.
posted by Superplin at 5:45 AM on December 13, 2019 [1 favorite]

It's a really interesting book to talk about because people seem to have vastly different readings on it depending on who they are. We read it for my book club, and there were people who thought it was a polemic against marriage, people who thought it was a feminist manifesto (and Rachel did nothing wrong), people who thought it was about whether you could be a shitty person and a good father, people who thought Toby was abusive towards his kids, people who thought Libby was okay and people who thought Libby was shitty, too. I ended up donating money to Sanders, Warren, and Castro's campaigns after reading this novel, because I thought it was a very good argument for a wealth tax. This does not seem to be the reaction other people had to reading it.

The thing that really jumped out at me when I was reading was how homogeneous their entire social circle was - the world Brodesser-Akner is describing is more stifling and conservative than any small town in Georgia. Gender norms are so severely enforced in this book - Toby can't imagine being a stay-at-home dad, Rachel couldn't imagine her son being allowed to ice skate and chafes against her husband cooking. Everyone is expected to have the exact same life and same extremely materialistic values, and their only relationships with nonwhite or nonstraight folks are entirely transactional. And the thing is that sort of social life doesn't happen by accident. It only happens if you're not talking to the gay cousin, or drop all of your interesting childhood and college friends (or they drop you). Especially in a place like New York, where there are definitely people who are not exactly like you around.

I didn't start off with any sympathy towards Toby, which made the book a pretty unpleasant read. Mr. Dinty read it for the same book club that I read it for - though he finished before I did. It was really interesting and reaffirming to our relationship talking about it with him (mostly with 'hey, you agree this is a shitty thing to do?'), and he got to enjoy the annoyed grunts and sighs I'd make on a page by page basis. I had a moment of social faux-pas when reading this on the bus, because I'd read a few paragraphs and then stare into space to gird myself for more - and the guy sitting across from me on the bus started giving me a funny look.
posted by dinty_moore at 6:44 AM on December 13, 2019 [6 favorites]

It's also interesting to read and hear how the author describes the book, because it's also different from the reviews. For example this one. I haven't been this fascinated in the responses to a book I absolutely hated in a long, long time.

On another note, I was reading this and Bitch Planet at the same time, which was a fucking trip.
posted by dinty_moore at 7:02 AM on December 13, 2019 [2 favorites]

Now that we’ve all read ‘Fleishman Is in Trouble,’ let’s talk about the ending

Yes: It's straight out of the final lines of Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway: "What is this terror? what is this ecstasy? he thought to himself. What is it that fills me with this extraordinary excitement? It is Clarissa, he said. For there she was.” Peter's ability to re-see Clarissa after so many decades is a template for Toby's expanded vision of the ways he can possibly see humanity, including his wife, and I think it's a hopeful (though perilous) sign. He is still capable of an open heart, as he was at the beginning of their marriage, though he will have to work at being able to access this expansive feeling as it gets buried under the avalanche of daily bullshit and resentments.

I finished it last night, and...well, maybe liked is not the right word. It resonated with me in uncomfortable ways, and I appreciated her perception of invisible currents between people. While reading, it helped me to understand that Taffy Brodesser-Akner was not just telling a story, but attempting a more formal project, and I was interested in the meta- stuff: from the cover (making the fictional Archer's The Upside-Down City into something real, by a woman), to dismantling the exclusivity of male narration, to dissecting the undercurrents of belonging and exclusion--I thought it was well-observed, and did a good job of illuminating aspects of a certain social milieu. I think TBA very much took on board the kerfuffle surrounding Claire Messud's comment about the likeability of characters: "The relevant question isn’t ‘Is this a potential friend for me?’ but ‘Is this character alive?’” because these are not immediately likeable people. But they once let each other into their younger hearts, and now these are middle-aged friendships, and even if Toby and Seth and Libby sometimes behave like jerks, there's room for exasperation within that bond, for the real and messy of people. And not social media messy: the actual annoying or shitty stuff we sometimes roll our eyes over, because we know it's an aspect of our larger, longer connection with this person. This book captures that dynamic so well, and it's a stark contrast to ghosting, cancelling, blocking.

Which brings me to the question of which friends I can read this book with. Do I give it to my friend of many years who is divorced, and who called me in his once-a-year contact and monopolized 90 percent of the conversation? (I was caught between “I’m a real person with a soul and I could use a friend, too,” and tonally reassuring him that I wouldn't punish him for not being in touch for so long, and ouch, did TBA nail those dynamics in a few words.) To the friend who still believes in the fairy tale of forever marriage despite having gone through truly rocky stuff? I want to talk about this book in a messy, non-book-club-suitable way but that means shattering the fortress, and wow, I just don't know if I'm brave enough to admit that I have sometimes been petty and awful and conflicted about marriage and motherhood, even to the friends who have seen it. So brava, TBA and Fleishman, for making me wrestle with the messy and difficult-to-articulate (let alone confess) stuff of relationships in middle age.
posted by MonkeyToes at 7:16 AM on December 22, 2019 [4 favorites]

I'm glad other people hated this book. I was baffled that it ended up on so many lists until I recalled how the establishment adores books about the super rich people and their ennui - and that the author is very mi h part of that establishment.

It's so incredibly blinkered, and the meandering nature of the book didn't help at all. There was a streak of misanthropy a mile wide and whilst some of the observations were on point, many were banal. Whether that was the characters or the author's I found I didn't really much care.

I feel like Anne Tyler wrote better versions of this book with more nuanced characters, diversity and incision forty years ago. And Joseph Heller wrote Something Happened sixty years ago, and it's basically the same book.

Tl;Dr I never want to read another book about rich middle aged white people and their rich middle aged problems ever again.
posted by smoke at 8:12 PM on December 31, 2019 [3 favorites]

« Older Black Lightning: The Book of R...   |  The L Word: Generation Q: Let'... Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments