FLEISHMAN IS IN TROUBLE by Taffy Brodesser-Akner
Random House, 2019
This book was a bit of a rollercoaster for me: I loved it and I hated it, I found it brilliant and I found it frustrating. I was actually expecting very little from it (books about rich people’s marriages failing just aren’t my thing; see: Fates and Furies) so on the whole I’d categorize it as a pleasant surprise, though I do have a few too many qualms to raise my rating higher than a solid 3 star.
What I found brilliant about this book was the character work. As others have said ad nauseum, every character in this book is deplorable, and if that’s a problem for you, you aren’t going to get anything out of this. I didn’t like Toby and Rachel, I didn’t find them sympathetic, and I found the stakes (how ever will this family survive on Toby’s $200k salary alone!) mind-numbingly low. So I suppose it’s to Brodesser-Akner’s credit that I was invested. I did care about whether these annoying kids would have to be uprooted from their life. I did care about whether Rachel would resume the mantel of motherhood, or whether she had abandoned her family for good. And I think the reason for that is that every major character in this book felt so thoroughly fleshed out and human. This is a book about fallible people failing; it’s a train wreck that you can’t look away from. That’s exactly what it sets out to be, and it succeeds magnificently in that regard.
What I found frustrating about this book was the structure. For one thing, it was overly long: this could have been an intimate, thorough excavation of this marriage, and still been 150 pages shorter. It wasn’t the page-count alone that bothered me: it was the fact that flashbacks were awkwardly woven into the narrative in a way that was like ‘Toby saw a family with three kids get on the subway. He and Rachel used to want to have three kids. [Cue 8 page backstory about that.]’ Incessantly. It felt rather amateurishly constructed in this regard.
My biggest problem though was the book’s choice of narrator. Full disclosure: first person minor rarely ever works for me, and this was not the book to change my mind. It’s not narrated by Toby or Rachel, but rather Libby, one of Toby’s college friends who becomes invested in their marriage. I found this to be such a flimsy framing device that ultimately didn’t add very much, and there were a few painfully on the nose moments where the author aimed for a larger commentary about how Libby’s role in the narrative was being sidelined (middle aged women are invisible, etc), but the fact that it was the author’s own narrative choice to sideline Libby made the whole thing a bit of an eye-roll.
So anyway, a mixed bag, but I certainly got a lot more out of this than I had expected to. I do think it’s a brilliant commentary on marriage and the sort of contradictory societal expectations placed on women, and if that sounds appealing to you and you’re willing to navigate through it with loathsome characters, I would recommend it.
You can pick up a copy of Fleishman is in Trouble here on Book Depository.