Of lost wives, liver problems, and phone sex
Author: Taffy Brodesser-Akner
Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s blistering-yet-cheerful story blows apart the clichés and offers readers a sexy, intelligent, multi-layered, spectacularly messed-up look at a tattered marriage that may—or may not—be beyond repair.
After fifteen years, Toby and Rachel have separated. They plan to get divorced, but it’s not as simple as that. Although they are polar opposites in temperament and personality, they’re both Fleishmans—and they are both very much in trouble.
Brodesser-Akner presents Toby’s perspective first, so our sympathies naturally lean in his direction. He’s a 41-year-old hepatologist (read: liver doctor) in Manhattan, and he’s the primary caregiver for the Fleishmans’ two children.
As the novel begins, Toby is having a meltdown about Rachel, who has dropped Solly and Hannah off at his crappy apartment and vanished. She ignores his increasingly frantic and scathing phone calls, and she fails to show up when it’s her turn to take the kids. Toby gets stuck in a “deep torture-spiral of anxiety” over her disappearance. Curiously, he doesn’t fear much for Rachel’s well-being or safety; rather, he maintains that she’s selfish, conniving and unfit for motherhood.
To take away the sting of having been snubbed—and handed the role of sole parent—Toby turns to the allure and instant gratification of the dating apps he’s just downloaded. Within minutes of posting his fictitiously enhanced profile, he gets pummeled with suggestive texts and photos of women’s body parts. To say that Toby gets high off these advances is an understatement. “He swiped and swiped, gobsmacked at the sheer volume. Face, face, face, face, full body, face, face, just collarbone, face face, face, just ass crack, face, tongue, just sideboob, oh man just lips, face.”
For as much as Toby wants to hole up in his bedroom with the pornographic images on his overheated phone, he can’t: he has to save lives at the hospital and mentor his med school fellows and figure out childcare (in this case, summer camp) for Solly and Hannah. Toby’s angst grows as his affluent, charming life crashes and burns.
Then there’s Rachel.
She is stubborn and ambitious and runs her own wildly successful talent agency. Sure, she longs for status and acceptance (and takes some questionable steps to secure them), but we begin to see that she’s just as vulnerable and distressed as Toby.
Toward the end of the novel we finally get Rachel’s side of the story, which is as convincing, if not as fleshed out, as her husband’s. It’s almost impossible not to empathize with a number of her decisions, as daft as they initially seem.
Brodesser-Akner is a mother herself, and she clearly has a pulse on the cluttered and chaotic nature of family life. On her practically bursting pages, she lays out all the unglamorous moments we encounter in middle age: juggling the kids, paying the bills, drinking too much wine, trying to get ahead at work, failing to get ahead at work, wanting too much sex, not wanting any sex at all.
Like a feat of magic, Brodesser-Akner tells a story that manages to be both feverish and comical, even subversively feminist. She shines a dazzling light on themes like greed, abandonment, double standards and redemption. And she supplies shrewd observations, smart conversations, and moments of gut-wrenching hope.
With our sympathies all over the place at the close of Fleishman Is in Trouble, we as readers are left to make our own conclusions about the Fleishmans’ choices. But we know one thing for sure: no one gets out of life unscathed. “He couldn’t bear to be with anyone who didn’t yet truly understand consequences, how the world would have its way with you despite all your careful planning. There was no way to learn that until you lived it.”