The reader’s response to Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s novel “Fleishman Is In Trouble”–which, amazingly, has been nominated for The National Book Award– is going to depend upon his or her age, demographic, education, ideology. There’s no doubt that the novel is exceptionally well written, as it purports to explore a very contemporary marriage, or its demise, told mostly from the perspective of the much beleaguered Toby Fleishman, who appears to be in his late thirties or early forties, a Manhattanite, doctor on the way up (or so he thinks), whose wife Rachel runs an entertainment agency which has become very successful. It’s cleverly narrated by a mutual friend of this couple’s, a woman Toby and Rachel met in their late college days on a trip to Israel, who also is suffering from what appears to be marital malaise and boredom. Rachel and Toby have two children of elementary school age (in private school, of course) in New York City. Rachel’s work keeps her at her office for increasingly long hours, and the novel revolves around a two week period when Toby is waiting for Rachel to pick up their children (they’ve separated) and, instead, she vanishes for two weeks entirely, abandoning (there’s no other word) her children and causing utter chaos in her huband’s life, as Toby has to juggle his medical duties, wheedle out of some (just as he’s up for a promotion, to boot), and, in utter desperation, find things for his kids to do, including sending them to camp while he wonders, frantically, where Rachel is.
So the novel purports to examine a contemporary marriage, wherein both parties work in careers, not jobs, so we’ve got gender and class here and a subtext about who’s got the power in the marriage: the usual topics of so much contemporary fiction.
The real problem for this reader is that this novel is about money and greed, pure and simple, and little else. Both parents are striving for what is considered by many New Yorkers/Brooklynites for the good life, which is defined in this novel as the ability to afford the best private schools, all kinds of lessons for the kids, the “right” apartments in the right neighborhoods, and even, at their relatively tender age, a house in the Hamptons for this indulged, entitled, spoiled and not very likeable family. The values herein , of course, are never questioned, and perhaps the author isn’t obliged to do so, as, after all, we’re living in The Gilded Age of Trump, real estate, vast sums of money, and just plain greed (the novel’ s not political, but we might presume that this couple would consider itself, singly and together, “progressives”).
It is nigh on impossible to have any positive feelings or empathy for Rachel (again, these feelings may vary: see my first paragraph); abandoning children, or dumping them for an unknown period of time on the other parent, just seems appalling and revolting because of Rachel’s ceaseless, relentless, unstoppable ambition (some readers may find themselves sympathetic to Rachel, but then perhaps she shouldn’t have had children). This couple wants everything, and it wants everything right now. When we learn about the amount of time, for example, that Rachel is alleged to spend researching the “right” schools, the right dance lessons (or whatever), we know that’s fake because she will only and inevitably send her children where her rich friends/contacts send their children. Rachel is also a revolting social climber.
The newly single (or is he?) Toby, and certainly the newly single parented Toby, begins to date from online services, and he seems to find himself in the hands of what appear to be voraciously sexually starved single women (another rather repulsive part of this novel); he makes a pass at a female doctor/resident under his supervision (after all, shouldn’t this smug author toss that in, too?). You won’t find a recent novel with as many gender cliches as this one, for sure, and the self-righteous reader can, depending upon your points of view, hate Toby or hate Rachel or hate them both, as I eventually did. The novel purports to empathize with Toby, until relatively near the end , when we’re privy to an increasingly desperate Rachel, who, poor soul, goes away to a trendy yoga-obsessed resort with, of course, one of her woman friend’s husbands (poor Rachel can only find succor in another man’s sex); Rachel appears to have a kind of breakdown (ah, maybe she CAN’T have it all….) and the reader will presume that the only person who will understand her and take her back will be Toby, of course, martyred fool that he often appears to be. (I might point out that Toby earns just under $300,000 a year in New York in his late thirties; this amount of money is scoffed at by Rachel; who on earth could live on THAT? (well, a whole lot of people do).
I haven’t despised a novel this much in a long time; I only finished it so that I could review it. “Fleishman Is In Trouble” is much praised by the usual people, who no doubt face the same, uh, tribulations, or think they do; I just wasn’t aware of the, say, necessity to own a house in The Hamptons by the age of forty while two young children need to be educated and the like; Fleishman himself doesn’t seem to object to these lifestyle excesses, which, of course, are paid for by Rachel’s hard-earned money.
Rachel and Toby are the products of many contemporary movements, and, again, some readers may find the (self-imposed) “complexities” of this contemporary “marriage” interesting and compelling. I did not.