Monday, December 2, 2019

Book Review: Fleishman Is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner

This was possibly the best book club discussion I've ever been involved in. And I'm extra glad it was a book club book, because I liked it better after the discussion. Because we were going to discuss it, and because I had issues with it, I (and others) looked for reviews and interviews with the author, and that brought a lot more to the understanding of the book. Although it's an easy argument to make, that if you need outside information to fully understand and appreciate the book, it's not completely successful.

Toby Fleischman is a liver doctor in Manhattan, who is nearly divorced and exploring the wild new world of internet hookups and sexting. One morning his soon-to-be-ex-wife drops off the kids before he's even awake, and he can't get in touch with her. For days. It's summer so the kids aren't in school, Toby doesn't have child care lined up, and the kids have some summer things he has to arrange for them to do. He talks his son into going with his daughter to sleep-away camp which helps a lot, but it's a real difficulty and burden. And where the heck is Rachel anyway? As he continues to not be able to find her, he goes from annoyed to worried to angry.

Partway through Toby's story about his horrible wife and how no matter how hard he tried, nothing was ever good enough for the harridan, you realize this isn't a traditional third-person narration. It's first person. You just don't know who the narrator is yet. Eventually it's revealed the story is being told by Toby's old friend from a semester he spent in Israel, Libby, a married mom in New Jersey.

I had issues with the style of the narration (that was not improved upon discussion), the breakdown of the story (that way--but it also is something that shouldn't have to be explained afterwards for readers to get the point), and all the sexting (felt gratuitous). But I liked the complicated portrayal of a marriage--no one ever marries an awful person and is themselves a saint while the other person destroys the marriage. That's just not ever the case. It's got a bit of a Rashoman-thing going on with multiple perspectives on the same incidents from three characters, which I like a lot. Everyone agreed the portrayal of the Upper East Side constant striving and one-up-man-ship was really accurate. It's interesting that in a book that superficially is about how a marriage failed, is big-picture about issues with gender and gender roles. However, I think it's only marginally successful in being about that, since you have to be TOLD that's a big theme in the book. Once you're made aware, you can see that issue everywhere, but it's not at all obvious. I'm not sure if it's too subtle or just too ingrained in today's society for us to see it objectively, but that's the best part of the book, and yet I think the vast majority of readers will overlook that.

I bought this book at my local independent bookstore, Watchung Booksellers.

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