"Fleishman Is in Trouble," by Taffy Brodesser-Akner. (Photo: Random House)
Toby Fleishman is a catch. He’s a respected Manhattan doctor just north of 40 with two bright kids and “don’t forget, still with his hair.” He’s recently split from his wife, Rachel, but a line of affluent, athleisure-clad women on dating apps seem to find him charming, ravenous to “set his weary heart afire with double entendre.” What’s not to like?
Well. Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s assured and spiky novel about a busted marriage, “Fleishman Is in Trouble” (Random House, 384 pp., ★★★½ out of four) is an assault on misleading surfaces. In most domestic novels, that means revelations of an affair, a hidden trauma or a long-buried family crisis. But Brodesser-Akner is after something more common yet more subtle: the inability of two members of a couple to simply hear each other, and how that miscommunication is often gendered.
“Anyone who has ever been to just one session of couples therapy could tell you that beyond your point of view lies an abyss with a bubbling cauldron of fire, and that just beyond that abyss lies your spouse’s point of view,” she writes.
At first, the chasm between Toby and Rachel seems straightforward. Toby is minding the kids and his career, pursuing a much-craved promotion. Meanwhile, Rachel, a high-powered agent — her biggest client is the creator of a “Hamilton”-esque musical about Woodrow Wilson’s wife — has gone AWOL since the split, unresponsive to days of calls and texts. That’s enough time for Toby to doom Rachel as a Bad Mom, nurse slights and get drunk on dating-app profiles.
Caught in the middle is Toby’s friend and the novel’s narrator, Elizabeth, who’s learned a few lessons about gender roles while working at a men’s magazine. For her, Rachel’s vanishing act is a problem for sure, but Toby’s I’m-the-victim keening about how Rachel “went for his masculinity like it was an artery” blows matters out of proportion at Rachel’s expense. As Elizabeth puts it: “Whatever kind of woman you are, even when you’re a lot of kinds of women, you’re still always just a woman, which is to say you’re always a little bit less than a man.”
Author Taffy Brodesser-Akner. (Photo: Erik Tanner)
Brodesser-Akner, who like Elizabeth toiled at men’s mags before her current post at the New York Times, is a top-notch feature writer thanks to her hyper-observant sensibility, which serves her well as a novelist. Equally important, she’s a master of structure, knowing what to withhold to keep a reader’s interest. For most of “Fleishman Is in Trouble,” she conceals details of Rachel’s disappearance: What kind of woman would vaporize on her husband, kids, job, just like that?
Well. The final third of the novel cannily upends our understanding of the Fleishmans’ relationship, exposing what kind of labor in a marriage is valued, what culturally qualifies as good parenting, why the bar for being considered a good dad is so low and why the one for being deemed an unfit mother is even lower. “Fleishman” is a highly entertaining novel about 40-something foibles, but it also delivers a piercing message about just how much within a relationship is prone to misinterpretation.
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