Book Review – Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner
© Steven Boykey SIdley
Eish. What a bludgeon of a book. This much anticipated novel was written by Taffy Brodesser-Akner, a widely-admired magazine writer, herself deeply embedded in the elitist soil of New York intelligentsia, where this story unfolds. This is a world stewing in its own self-regarding bitterness and loathing – over-affluent, over-analytical, unlikeable, fraught, privileged, narcissistic, overly-sexualised.
There is much to hate here. The life of the New York wealthy. The characters. The relationships. The utter elitist superficiality and cruelty of it all.
Oh. Did I forget to mention that I loved this book?
Firstly the structure, which is odd, and eventually very clever. We start with Toby, a doctor and father and now in the process of an acrimonious divorce from his much more successful wife Rachel, a talent super-agent. The story is told from Toby’s view in the the third person ‘he’. And then suddenly, a few chapters in, we switch unaccountably, to the first person ‘I’ for a few pages, and we realise that someone is telling this story to us. The ‘I’ sections are very short, just quick observations and short anecdotes really (except at the end where the ‘I’ narrator/author wraps up), and creates the strange illusion being told this story by a both the author and an omniscient narrator. Neat.
Nearly whole book is from the perspective of Dr. Toby Fleishman – beaten down, bitter, left by his (much ) more ambitious wife, now suddenly disappeared into thin air, leaving their two kids scared and bereft and angry. Until that perspective suddenly changes to Rachel’s story, right at the last lap of the book, and we are presented with her view of things, attended by of the best descriptions of a (not to spoil), er, particular much-discussed state of mind that I have ever read.
Toby, height-challenged and now alone with a recently disappeared soon-to-be-ex-wife, discovers online dating, or, more accurately, online dates for easy sex hookups. A nirvana for a very short 40 year old man with its attendant insecurities. Until it is not that either. The online hookup sex suffuses the first part to the book, it is strangely thrilling to read but ultimately sad and then sadder.
Toby looks for his missing and hated wife with increasing desperation and rage. He tries to be a good father his falling apart children. He tries to save lives at his hospital. He tries to deal with his failures and lack of ambition. He is gentle with his children. He is scared and angry. He regales us with tales of his awful wife and the shocking things she has said to him, which she can never take back. He finds evidence of an affair. He gazes at his navel. He sleeps with anonymous woman. He is overlooked for promotion. He makes disastrous plays for friends and co-workers. He is a mess. He is a shit.
And somehow I cared about him
And then we find out about Rachel, and what has happened to her, now and before. She is broken. She is awful. She is hateful and abrasive. Her cruelty to her kids and her husband is unbearable. She is unfixable. She is wounded. She is also a shit.
And somehow I cared about her too.
And the friends. And the first person narrator. These impossible solipsists and worriers who would drive anyone mad, living in their bubbles of self and self and self.
I cared about them too.
Which is part of the genius of this book. Everybody is awful. But good fiction does not require us to make friends with the characters. It requires only that we care about them.
So what us the book about? It is about the pain and crippling bile of divorce, one in which everyone is at fault. It is about the perfection of love dissolving into its opposite. It is about the deep imperfections of a bunch of too smart, too affluent, too successful friends and lovers and their inability to find meaning and solid ground anywhere, even when it is in plain sight.
It is also a deeply feminist book, with tropes and themes of hot gender issues constantly bubbling to the surface, sometimes delivered with nuance and unusual new perspectives, and sometimes driven in with a hammer.
Did I mention that much of this book is really funny? Yes, funny – laugh out loud funny, satirical funny, situationally funny, language funny. And sometimes poignant, especially Toby’s gentle parenting and gentle doctoring. But it can also become a thicket, overgrown with the infuriating unhappiness of people without empathy for almost anyone but themselves.
Does this make you want to read the book? No?
Take my challenge then. Read a book in which you dislike everyone. I think it will be worth your while.
Published by Wildfire.