Who wouldn’t want to be married to Dr. Toby Fleishman? He’s a successful hepatologist (liver specialist) whose only shortcoming is . . . well . . . he’s short (5 feet 5 inches to be precise). The answer is . . . his wife Rachel, who had such a problem being married to him, she went off the deep end and walked out. Apparently, being married to a successful doctor who doesn’t cheat and loves his children isn’t enough for Rachel. In Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s new (and first) novel Fleishman Is In Trouble, the author explores the state of modern marriage in a can’t-put-it-down story of expectations, rewards, and disappointments.
Marriage is a complicated business and the author mines its ups and downs through the eyes of three main characters, Toby Fleishman, his wife Rachel, and Toby’s long-time friend from their working-in-Israel days, Libby Epstein. A fourth character, Seth, plays a minor role counter-balancing Toby, Rachel and Libby’s marital machinations. Most of the plot takes place over the course of one summer in New York City when life turns upside down for Toby Fleishman. He’s newly separated from Rachel after fifteen years of marriage that produced two children. Toby has moved from their fancy uptown condo to a worn-down apartment with poor amenities and non-functioning air-conditioning. The only bright spot in his life is his seemingly endless opportunities for sex as a result of joining an online dating site. Even though Rachel may no longer want him, there are many single and divorced women who can’t seem to get enough of his charms. His sex life has never been so abundant or so varied, and his height is no obstacle. He’s enjoying an absolute smorgasbord of sexual adventures.
Early one morning, Rachel drops the kids off at Toby’s apartment ahead of the planned time in their carefully arranged schedule, then she disappears. For weeks. Toby cannot reach her through her phone, at her apartment, or at her job where she owns and runs a very profitable and high-profile talent agency. In a classic example of role reversal, Toby is now faced with all the problems that come with being a single parent, reassuring his 8-year-old son, Solly that his mother is still alive and loves him, while managing the temperamental moods and demands of his 12-year-old daughter, Hannah. Toby struggles with juggling day-camp, sleep-away camp, tween angst, and temper tantrums while trying to coordinate feeding his kids, organizing sitters and still trying to keep himself upwardly mobile at the hospital where he works.
The departure of Toby’s wife Rachel leaves him even more bitter and angry than he was before the separation when they were fighting constantly. The story is told through the voice of Toby’s friend Libby Epstein who has her own personal check-list of disappointments and insecurities. Libby was a writer for a men’s magazine, and also married with children. I found this first-person narrative by Libby to be a bit confusing at times when the author jumps between describing Toby’s situation in the third person, then switches to her own voice.
The reader is consumed with sympathy for Toby. His wife Rachel is a bitch. She’s a social climber, neglectful of their children, overly ambitious, self-centred and her constant anger makes her hard to be around. The author writes in a compelling voice for Toby. But, as we all know, there are always two sides to every story. The tone, the vocabulary and the emotional struggles while masculine are relatable, however, this is a strongly feminist novel. Despite my sympathies for Toby, I found myself thinking, “Now you know what most women are up against, particularly single mothers”. Brodesser-Akner is a master manipulator of the reader’s emotions while sneaking her feminist message into the plot in a very impactful manner.
As a counter-point to all the complications surrounding marriage, Toby and Libby’s friend Seth has remained steadfastly single, living a hedonistic lifestyle. He runs through women like they’re a disposable commodity, which in the context of his life, they are. Love and marriage are examined from all sides. There are plenty of philosophical questions, “Are you supposed to want to get married? Or are you just supposed to marry the person you’re into when you decide it’s time to get married?” The reader is left to draw her own conclusions. In his quest for a wife, Toby’s only requirement was that she wouldn’t be crazy. That’s a pretty low bar and he married far above his criteria. So how did it go so far off the rails?
There’s so much more to say about this book but the bottom line is I couldn’t put it down. It’s hard-hitting, intelligently written, a bit raunchy and clearly deserving of being on The New York Times bestselling list, where it currently now ranks. I can see it being a book club favourite and a topic of discussion for feminists and traditionalists alike. I’d rate Fleishman Is In TroubleÂ by first-time author Taffy Brodesser-Akner as 9 out of 10. I’m pretty sure you too won’t be able to put it down and I look forward to more novels by this talented writer.
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