Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner

Published by WILDFIRE

When a book is being compared to the works of Philip Roth and Tom Woolf, and is being entered into the canon of the Great American Novel one’s internalised sexist immediately concludes that the author must be male. The blurb would also indicate such; a New York, Jewish hepatologist with short-man syndrome is devastated by the end of his marriage to a brittle, Waspy shrew but then elated by the number of women available to him at the touch of a button thanks to the rise and dominance of internet dating since he was last on the courting scene. It’s an easy leap to make but one that would have you careening down the crevice once you’ve jumped, because the writer is a woman and there is more to the narrative than first meets the eye.

At least there is after the first half, which lends itself to microscopic examinations of Toby Fleishman’s sex life and its effect on his psyche. He bemoans his treatment at the hands of his horrible ex-wife, is surprised and delighted by the attention a divorced doctor can garnish online and frets over what to do with his kids during the long summer break. Despite this incredible intimacy the third person narrator is exposed by tiny, subtle revelations that increase in volume as the story goes on to be a close friend of his, a woman named Libby, whom he met while on a year abroad in Israel during his student days.

Brodesser-Akner is very skilled in subtlety and it’s with deft strokes that she moves seamlessly from Libby’s narration of Toby’s post-separation life, their time together in Israel and then back in New York, to Libby’s own life as a journalist turned stay-at-home-mother in New Jersey, and the dissatisfaction that has grown with her life decisions. The overwhelmingly self-involved analysis of Toby and somewhat of Libby herself is stark, when the turning point of the story comes about when it becomes clear that Toby’s estranged wife has disappeared.

Where’d you go, Rachel? In another skilful twist to the tale Fleishman’s more acute failings are exposed and his poisonous point-of-view directed towards his wife turned on its head. The final third of the book painfully exposes Toby’s self-obsession and reveals the truth about his ex-wife.

The narrative is very long, with few breaks and only three defined chapters which made it quite difficult for me to get a good pace going when reading in 30 minute snatches on public transport. In hindsight this decision is beneficial to the over-arching story, but it’s definitely a book that needs a schedule put in place to read. A good go is required to set the pace going, so you can go from a marathon to a half marathon to a sprint in your own time. However, in saying that I did stay up far later than my usual bedtime to finish it, as heart wrenching, heart breaking and revelatory as it is.

As character studies go Fleishman is in Trouble is a master class. It not only delves deep into the personality of this flawed man but divulges the many facets of character a person can have. You can be a prodigious doctor but a good husband, a decent doctor but a mediocre husband, a failed doctor and a terrible husband all in one lifetime. A father who tries his best and sometimes makes the right call but other times could make better informed decisions. You can be a completely different person in the eyes of others; parents, siblings, spouse, children, friends, patients, relative strangers and most strikingly yourself.

Through Libby’s narration of Toby’s post-divorce life we also see her own complicated personality, and those of his two children, who are young enough to still need their parents but old enough to want to start creating their own paths, through curiosity and experimentation with boundaries. When we get to Rachel we already have a pre-conceived notion of her, which makes it all the more shocking when we figure out where she’s been and what she’s been up to. Fleishman is in Trouble may take a while to get in to, but once you’re in you’ll be glad you persevered.

  • First published in The Tuam Herald on 02 10 19.

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