New York Times and GQ journalist Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s debut novel, Fleishman Is in Trouble is about a well-to-do couple in their 40s going through a divorce. The book, however, is really about marriage, and how — after kids and successful careers enter into the equation — couples measure themselves against each other, and how we are often so focused on our own contributions to the marriage that we neglect — or can’t even see — the contributions of the other spouse.
Narrated by Libby (who often feels like a stand-in for Brodesser-Akner), Fleishman Is in Trouble is primarily focused on the divorce of Toby and Rachel Fleishman. Told in three parts, the first presents Toby a doctor, a dutiful husband and loving father, who decides to end his marriage to Rachel — a busy, high-powered agent — because he believes that Rachel doesn’t really love him. She feels absent from his life. She works long hours, and even when she is around, she’s preoccupied with work, with making more money, or with the family’s social standing. Toby, meanwhile, presents himself as the “wife” of the marriage: The guy who makes dinners for the kids, who empties the dishwasher, gets the kids to school, and works more modest hours, content enough with his $250,000 salary that he has little interest in putting in the effort it might take to earn more money, especially as it might mean spending less time with his patients.
Toby is presented as a good guy who gets screwed over by his unfeeling, ambitious wife — and his lack of career ambition as a noble sacrifice — but the novel leaves the reader with a nagging sensation that Toby is not exactly as he appears. Or rather, he is exactly as he appears, but dutifulness is not the same as love and empathy, and his devotion to his marriage and kids is in some ways performative. “Being the wife” in the relationship, after all, is a lot easier for a man because societal expectations do not ask as much from the husband, and where he falls short, it’s still the wife who is judged, and where he succeeds he gets credit and accolades while the wife is just doing her job.
Midway through the novel, Rachel disappears, leaving Toby alone to take care of the kids. He complains and bitches about it, but it feels like exactly what he wants because it allows him to present himself as the perfect father that he thinks he is and his wife as a “crazy bitch” who he was right to divorce. In the third part, however, we finally get Rachel’s side of the story, and unsurprisingly, all is not as it appears — not in a sinister way (it’s not that kind of book), but in the way that the contributions of wives and mothers are often overlooked, because those contributions not as visible. They’re intangible — like devoting years to meticulously building a social network for your kids by developing relationships and maintaining them. And even those tasks that a mother does are not appreciated; they’re expected, and they’re only noticed when they’re not performed.
But beyond the Fleishmans’ marriage, we also get a glimpse at midlife malaise from the perspective of two other characters, the narrator Libby — who wonders if there is more to life than a reliable, loving husband and great kids, or if what we all struggle so hard to achieve in life is not entirely what it’s cracked up to be. Meanwhile, Toby and Libby’s other best friend from college, Seth, is 41 and still single, and while he seems to love his child-free life of random hookups and zero responsibility — something that both Toby and Libby envy and disdain — it’s not entirely what it seems, either.
I mean, look: It’s a #whitepeopleproblems book, a livelier and more incisive homage and subversion of Updike’s Rabbit novels updated for the social media era of dating apps and sexting. For what it is, however, it’s a brilliant and introspective book on modern marriages, on evolving gender roles, and the unrelenting pressures of the work-life balance. I feel like to reduce it to that, however, undersells what an engrossing, entertaining, and through-proving novel it is, and how successfully Taffy Brodesser-Akner manages to bring the same voice she uses in her hugely popular celebrity profiles to Fleishman Is in Trouble. It is a thematically rich novel, but it’s also a clever and fun read, a soul-searching book that may prompt its readers to re-examine their own marriages as they watch that of the Fleishmans unravel. It’s easily one of the best books of 2019, and the rare book that operates on two levels — as a sharp and profound meditation on marriage and as a thoroughly enjoyable beach read.
Header Image Source: Erik Tanner / Random House