book review: Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner

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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.


Women’s Prize 2020 reviewsDominicana | Fleishman is in Trouble | Girl | Girl, Woman, Other | How We Disappeared | Red at the BoneWeather


You can pick up a copy of Fleishman is in Trouble here on Book Depository.

34 thoughts on “book review: Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner

  1. I admit, I love a book where I hate all the characters, but am still made to care, so this would work for me on that level. But I hate a badly structured book. I’ve read quite a few reviews of this now and I don’t think it’s for me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think you’d ultimately end up with a similar conclusion that I did on this one. And I would definitely stress that I DID enjoy reading it… but still, it’s hard to muster enough enthusiasm to strongly recommend a 3-star book to someone.

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    • It’s SO funny how divisive that element has been!!! I really wish I had had a moment where it clicked for me and I felt like it was an interesting and necessary enough choice to justify why it was written that way, but I never really got that! I’ve discussed this a lot with a friend who really loved the narration though so I can definitely respect where that argument is coming from.

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    • Honestly it was a bit miraculous that the author was able to get me invested at all given how resistant I was to these characters and this premise on principle. But yes… not my favorite. I really don’t want to see this shortlisted for the WP.

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  2. I just picked this up and while I was extremely skeptical of this at first (rich people problems aren’t my thing, either) I’m really warming up to the narration. At this point it still feels like close third person rather than first person minor, so I’m curious as to how the author will pull it off. Great review!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I hope you ultimately end up enjoying it, and that the choice of narrator works for you better than it worked for me! I can see why some people enjoyed that element but I think I just wanted more from it and from Libby’s character in general. And thank you!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Weirdly, despite the fact that basically everyone has given this three stars, the more reviews I read of it, the more interested I am to actually read it. I’m especially intrigued to see how the odd narrative angle works for me.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Great review! As you know this worked surprisingly well for me, though I do understand your criticisms and mostly agree with them. I can definitely second that it’s longer than it needs to be, but I found the writing (and the structure, by the end) so compelling that perhaps it was easier for me to overlook other issues I was having with the book. In any case, I’ll be very interested to see what Brodesser-Akner writes next, as I can hardly imagine her turning out anything boring after some of the bold choices she took with this one!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Her writing was definitely VERY compelling – I forget who said that it gets easier to speed-read by the end but that ended up being very true for me. I felt like I was slogging through Toby’s section for a hundred years but as soon as we switched to Rachel the book sort of renewed its own energy. I’m also very curious to see where TA-B goes from here!

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