A man, a broken marriage, a midlife emotional reckoning: The plot of “Fleishman Is in Trouble” is straight out of a complaint about the narrative doldrums of so-called literary fiction. Another 40-something man’s bitter musings about the inconstancy of the heart and the oppressiveness of the domestic milieu? This is a facile, unfair way to evaluate a book, but it’s tempting to view that whole topic as exhausting.
But Taffy Brodesser-Akner, a New York Times staff writer, has a gift for making the stalest genre — a celebrity profile, a divorce novel — as compulsively readable as an Agatha Christie mystery. Her prose is seamless, her asides clever, her observations always on point. Without flattening her subjects, she locates the stakes of their quotidian dramas and the hidden tensions of their seemingly controlled lives, transforming something unremarkable into something textured, absorbing, and darkly funny. When she writes a book about modern heterosexual marriage, you don’t roll your eyes; you clear your schedule.
In “Fleishman Is in Trouble,” her debut novel, that magic touch never falters ― even when she introduces as her protagonist the unprepossessing Toby Fleishman, a man who orders chicken breasts cooked without added oil and congratulates himself for eschewing a lucrative career in favor of selfless medical work and a meager six-figure salary. Toby Fleishman is, we are to believe, in trouble. At 41, he’s getting divorced from his tautly successful but soulless wife, Rachel. He is a once-married, physically fit New York hepatologist, so he is drowning in a tidal wave of attractive singles. But he’s in trouble, most of all, because his bitch ex-wife left the kids at his new apartment so she could swan off to an exclusive yoga retreat and then never came back.
At first glance, “Fleishman Is in Trouble” is a novel about Toby Fleishman, a man who commands our sympathy effortlessly, as his due. His gripes consume page after page, his ambitions are dwelt upon, his preference for women his age or older unpacked at length. But in the background, Rachel’s absence is an ominous, steadily increasing hum. Sure, she’s selfish. Sure, she’s never been as much of a parent as Toby. (“That was the big difference between them, Rachel,” he fumes. “He didn’t see their children as a burden, Rachel. He didn’t see them as endless pits of need, Rachel. He liked them, Rachel.”) Maybe she has a boyfriend, or perhaps work is crazy. None of this, as the weeks go by, satisfactorily accounts for her disappearance. And yet it remains out of frame while we fixate on Toby’s unremarkable problems; the tension is almost unbearable.
Like the smash-hit suspense novels “Gone Girl” and “The Girl on the Train,” “Fleishman Is in Trouble” is a novel about how we don’t really see women for who they are. The real mystery of the book is: what are women really up to? Who are they really? In domestic thrillers, the answer might be that they’re more evil than we believe possible, or that they’re less crazy than we comfortably assume. In Brodesser-Akner’s hands, it matters less what the answer is than how rarely we bother to ask it, and to really listen when they respond. Beneath the surface of Toby’s life, another story simmers: Who are the women around him, and why aren’t we paying attention to their lives? Instead, what we pay attention to is how women reflect men to us, how they vouch for him or hurt him or apologize for him.
Part of Brodesser-Akner’s gift as a journalist lies in her studied self-revelation. She’s present in her profiles, yet somehow disappears into them; she offers herself up as a readerly stand-in, the first sympathetic ear to take in the celebrity’s self-explications and meandering memories. Her embodied interest, like a sitcom laugh track, instructs our own. Her self slips into the profiles in order to enhance the vividness of her subjects.
“'Fleishman Is in Trouble' is a novel about how we don’t really see women for who they are.”
So it’s fitting that Fleishman’s troubles, in her debut novel, are presented through the eyes and ears of an intermediary. Our Virgil through the circles of Toby Fleishman’s hell is Libby Slater, an old college friend who, like Brodesser-Akner herself, built a career as a features writer for a men’s magazine. (Prior to the Times, Brodesser-Akner was a contributor to GQ.) Now she’s parenting full-time, possibly working on a Y.A. book, and bitterly comparing the opportunities she was given to the great but troubled male journalists before her.
Libby makes herself felt on the second page of the novel, though she doesn’t come into focus until over 20 pages later. “Still, he told me, it was jarring,” writes Brodesser-Akner. “Rachel was gone now, and her goneness was so incongruous to what had been his plan.” This is how Libby peeks through in most of the novel, as the silent “me” who received Toby’s confidences and who is now passing them along with all the assuredness of an accomplished reporter.
Through Libby’s eyes, the women in the novel recede into the background, becoming only outlines: The ex-wife (status-hungry, cold, vaguely “horrible”), the parade of dating-app options (a blur of hair colors and boob sizes), his colleagues (either threatening or perhaps sexually available). Even his daughter Hannah ― a snide 11-year-old with Rachel’s sharp good looks ― emerges as an evasive antagonist, while 9-year-old Solly is his dad’s soulful, sweet miniature, a manifestation of the wonder of child-rearing.
Toby loves his kids, of course; he loves them so much that he was the primary caregiver even before the divorce. For this, he is both a hero and a victim, the nurturing father juxtaposed with the workaholic mother who resented that her kids “were not deferential to her like her employees.” And the divorce, to be clear, was his idea — he’d been asking for it for months by the time Rachel gave in. It’s just that, well, his phone is awash in nude photos from sexually adventurous women over 40, and having the kids indefinitely has thrown something of a spanner in his plans for carnal freedom. Plus, he’s up for a promotion, but single-parenting without warning hasn’t exactly transformed him into a dream candidate.
Libby absorbs and reiterates Toby’s complaining, even when he’s complaining about how Rachel used to complain. She agrees that Rachel, with whom she’d never become friends, is an evil cow. She relays his version of fights with his ex and his bad-faith interpretations of her comments. (When Toby tries to schedule a family dinner last-minute, she tells him she has to meet with a client instead. “‘Please,’ she’d said. ‘Before you persecute me for working again, I am trying to manage. I have more expenses than ever. Do you know how much mediation cost me?’ Unspoken: You idiot. Can’t you read? We’re not a family anymore.”)
As with Brodesser-Akner’s quiet, unrelenting profiles, Libby’s narration may be unfailingly generous to her friend, but it’s not blinkered. She doesn’t hide the signs that Toby is self-absorbed, self-pitying, that she “couldn’t remember a time when he’d sat and listened to me.” Inevitably, the reader begins to wonder what his account leaves out, what Rachel’s side would be. Toby is narcissistic, selfish, and smug, but he’s not a monster. His feelings matter. It’s just that they aren’t the whole story.
At times, “Fleishman” reads like a mea culpa from a former men’s magazine pro: All that time and attention devoted to male subjects, male pursuits. Libby admits she found men more interesting, more unburdened by oppression and therefore more free to obsess over their souls, their dreams.
“They said all the things I wasn’t allowed to say aloud without fear of appearing grandiose or self-centered or conceited or narcissistic,” she thinks. “That was what I knew for sure, that this was the only way to get someone to listen to a woman — to tell her story through a man.”
Even women are quicker to sympathize with men over other women. It’s such a recognizable phenomenon that the philosopher Kate Manne, in her book “Down Girl,” dubbed our propensity to side with powerful abusive men, in particular, “himpathy.” Libby resents this, but she also embodies it. For years, she chooses to sit and listen to men. What will it take for her to give that to a woman?
“Fleishman Is in Trouble” crackles with this friction, and with Toby’s general friction with women, born of his inability to see them for exactly who they are. The force of it swept me through the novel like a wildfire. I was waiting ― it’s impossible not to ― for these women to step out of the background, especially the much-maligned, ever-absent Rachel. I was desperate to hear what she had to say about herself.