BookBrowse Reviews Fleishman Is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner

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Fleishman Is in Trouble

A Novel

by Taffy Brodesser-Akner

Fleishman Is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner X
Fleishman Is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner
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  • Published:
    Jun 2019, 384 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Sarah Tomp
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This witty and perceptive debut narrates the ups and downs of marriage, friendship and ambition among a group of upper class New Yorkers.

Toby Fleishman is learning how to be single. After 14 years of an increasingly tumultuous marriage to Rachel, they've been separated for almost two months. Although he still has hang-ups based on his young adult insecurities over his weight (too much) and height (too little), he is amazed to discover that suddenly he is the object of female lust and attention. Mothers of his children's friends lean into him, hug him longer than necessary and offer to get together. He's getting confusing signals from colleagues at work. Most of all, he is stunned by the number of sexual invitations—via erotic texts, photographs and even actual real-life dates—he receives via dating apps from women who are "self-actualized and independent and knew what they wanted." Being single at 41 is completely different than it was in his 20s. Despite Toby's disappointment and heartbreak over his failed marriage, things are looking up.

But then workaholic Rachel suddenly takes off for a weekend wellness retreat, leaving their two children at his apartment. Toby loves his children, but, as someone who likes to follow the rules, he is also annoyed with Rachel for breaking their agreed upon visitation schedule. Then, when she doesn't return as planned, he is left juggling care for snarly pre-teen Hannah and sweetly anxious nine-year-old Solly, along with his job as a surgeon—all the while distracted by messages via his tantalizing new dating app.

The narrator of this sardonic look at the modern state of dating in early middle age is a college friend of Toby's, Elizabeth "Libby" Epstein. Though the focus stays primarily on Toby, Libby's own struggles with aging, marriage, motherhood and her paused career as a journalist are interspersed throughout as a contrast to the relationship between Toby and Rachel. Although the narrative premise requires some suspension of disbelief as to how Libby could possibly have knowledge of Toby's deepest most intimate thoughts and experiences, her outsider view as someone who knows both Toby and Rachel adds an interesting vantage on their relationship.

In addition to the analysis of a troubled marriage, this novel also explores the evolution of ambition and friendship, the latter achieved through Toby's interactions with Libby, and another college friend named Seth. Although the characters are a narrow group of firmly elite and upper-class Manhattanites—Toby is considered to be an underachiever because he is "only" a surgeon specializing in liver disorders—the greater themes will most likely resonate with many readers.

For the early part of the novel, I found Toby to be a sympathetic character. He loves his kids, despite their spoiled tendencies. He even adroitly handles his daughter's mishap exploring her budding sexuality with consideration and care. I found his view that "we should all be like the liver" to be positively endearing. As he explains, this unique organ is "full of forgiveness. It understood that you needed a few chances before you got your life right." As he struggles under the weight of change, it is hard to understand how he ever fell in love—and stayed there—with Rachel who, according to his memories, was cold and angry, demanding and aloof.

However, I found him less admirable as the novel continued. He became tiresome and whiny. Near the end, when Libby begins to understand Rachel's actions and point of view more fully—asking readers to do the same—I felt as though perhaps I'd been misled in my assessment of him. Then again, that may be the point. After all, there are two sides to every marriage. I just wish there'd been a more even balance given to Rachel's perspective.

The sharp and witty examinations of our modern culture are thoroughly enjoyable. Libby is a perceptive narrator trying to make sense of a confusing world. Woven throughout the narrative are insights and musings that add depth to the surface plot. Small points add up to big ideas. Like, "Did you ever notice that you only use the word amicable in relation to divorce?...The way you could say 'malignant' for things other than cancer but you never did?"

All in all, Fleishman is in Trouble is an astute look at the complexities of long term relationships—both romantic and platonic—and what it means to grow and change while simultaneously staying devoted and committed.

Reviewed by Sarah Tomp

This review is from the June 19, 2019 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.

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