Forty-one-year-old Dr Toby Fleishman and his high-flying wife have separated after 15 years of marriage. He thinks he knows what’s in store: weekends and every other holiday with his two kids, some residual bitterness, the occasional moment of tension in their co-parenting negotiations. Then one day, in the middle of his summer of sexual emancipation, Rachel drops their two children off at his place in the dead of the night and never returns.
As Toby tries to figure out where Rachel went, all while juggling his patients at the hospital, his never-ending parental duties and his new app-assisted sexual popularity, his tidy narrative of the spurned husband with the overly ambitious wife is his sole consolation. But if Toby ever wants to truly understand what happened to Rachel and why his marriage failed, he is going to have to consider that he might not have seen things all that clearly in the first place.
Much of the first half of the novel focuses on newly single Toby and his bitterness towards what his ex-wife sees as his shortcomings. He’s a respected doctor, but that’s not impressive enough for her. He’s not rich enough either – even on a five-figure salary – or tall enough, a trait he sees as a barrier to his success. On one of his many dates, he bemoans the women who talk of their own divorces: “They’d always seemed like such victims. The way they would talk about their betrayals that led to hurt and the intensity that became apathy – it made him wonder what the men’s side of the story was.” Here we get it. In this tale of role reversal, it’s Rachel who’s ambitious, sexually driven, successful. Meanwhile, it’s Toby who’s left to compromise his career, take charge of the childcare and cook dinner every night. As his divorce lawyer reminds him as they discuss custody: “You’re the wife.”
At first this feels like Toby’s tale. Until we realise the story is being narrated by his college friend Libby. A former staff writer on a prominent men’s magazine – rather like Brodesser-Akner herself – Libby reveals that she finds it easier to observe and write about others rather than turn the pen on herself. Now a reluctant stay at home mum, she sympathises with Toby and his current situation and at the start of the novel, she makes it very clear that she’s always hated Rachel. But this pity evaporates two-thirds into the book, when Toby seems more interested in the titillating content on his phone than her personal toils. Suddenly the story switches via a brilliant plot device that swings the narrative into brand new territory.
At its core, Fleishman Is In Trouble is a fascinating look at modern marriage. Brodesser-Akner leaves no stone unturned as she details everything from Toby and Rachel’s first meeting in their early 20s through to their bank balances, preferred sexual positions, regular takeaway choices and disparate approaches to parenting. Through their separation, we’re also offered insight into NYC’s online dating scene, of which Toby is now a keen participant: “His phone was aglow from sunup to sundown… with texts hat contained g-strings and ass cleavage and underboss and sideboob and just straight-up boob.” At the age of 41, he’s finally getting the sexual validation he never got when he was a 5ft 5 youngster whose mother humiliated him with weekly weigh-ins at Weight Watchers. He doesn’t need Rachel anymore – or so he’d like to think.
Like Brodesser-Akner’s forensic profile pieces for The New York Times Magazine – see her recent takedown of Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop brand – her debut novel is wonderfully written and remarkably detailed. As Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, puts it: “It’s just the sort of thing that Philip Roth or John Updike might have produced in their prime (except, of course, that the author understands women)”. The fact that a man’s perspective is explored by a female author and narrator makes for a fascinating dive into gender politics, as Toby’s misogyny is slowly revealed and the female characters emancipated. Nigella Lawson described the book as “heartbreaking and funny” and it truly is. We raced through this razor-sharp debut in a day. A must-read.
Fleishman Is In Trouble is out now.
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