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

Fleishman is in Trouble – Taffy Brodesser-Akner (Random House, 2019)

Fleishman might be in trouble but I spent much of the novel thinking, This guy deserves it.

Toby Fleishman is newly divorced and his ex-wife has disappeared. This is particularly a problem because Toby and Rachel share two young children – Hannah and Solly – and after Rachel drops them off unexpectedly one morning, Toby is left to struggle through the summer with childcare, while also balancing his job as a doctor and his burgeoning dating life.

Toby has discovered online dating and it turns out he’s super popular there, a new world of sexual desire opening up before him. This quickly seems to develop into an addiction as Toby mourns the loss of his sexual freedom when he has to take care of his own kids. But after he fires their lifelong nanny in a fit of anger it becomes even harder to sympathize with him. His ex-wife is, of course, crazy and a terrible mother. Because we are seeing this story up and close and personal with Toby, we don’t get much perspective on Rachel herself until later in the story.

What makes the novel and its perspective unusual though is that Toby is not the narrator. Our narrator is Elizabeth, a long-term friend of Toby’s. They’ve known each other since they were in their early 20s and though they’ve drifted apart through the years, they reconnect after Toby’s divorce. Elizabeth is also a parent to two young children, married and living in New Jersey with her frankly astonishingly patient husband. We get to know more about Elizabeth as the book progresses and she has her own sort of mid-life crisis. Turns out, I didn’t find Elizabeth that likely either.

Which isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy this book on some levels. As Rachel’s disappearance extends, there is a growing tension and the reader becomes more and more aware that something is wrong. Toby’s version can’t be the only version of their marriage and is Elizabeth really that reliable as a narrator? There is too, the very interesting exploration of parenthood that the book explores. Toby is a successful doctor but Rachel is the real money-maker in their relationship. Her earnings allow them to live a certain lifestyle amongst New York’s fabulously wealthy but Rachel’s strivings also mean that she can never let up in order to keep up with those around them. Toby presents himself as more laidback, caring less about the schools their kids go to or the activities they participate in. He views it all from a cynical distance, assuming that his children will grow up to be like him. But if you let your kids be surrounded by certain values, how likely are they to not adopt those values themselves?

There are lots of interesting ideas explored within the pages of Fleishman is in Trouble and while the book overall was a little uneven for me, I’m glad to see some of these questions raised and I could see this book making for a great book club discussion.

7 thoughts on “Book Review: Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner”

  1. I really enjoyed this book, and I saw the author speak here in Calgary and hearing her perspectives was very enlightening – it definitely shaped how I read this book. She spoke about how as a working mom, the school always phoned her when the kids were sick, even though her husband was marked as the priority to call when she was out of town! Still so many gender biases we are fighting against…

    1. This would be a book where I’d love to hear the author speak on it directly! I did appreciate the way it turned many gender-based expectations around.

  2. I remember this being everywhere when it came out, but I never read it. It does sound interesting, but I find books with unlikeable narrators so difficult to read that I doubt I’d be able to get through it! Still, I am glad you were able to appreciate some aspects about it so it wasn’t a washout.

  3. I don’t mind unlikable narrators, so long as their story is compelling. Both Lolita and Tampa (by Alissa Nutting) come to mind. Your note about children being influenced by those around them reminds me of the news interview I saw this morning with Dr. Kendi, the guy known for promoting anti-racism. He said studies show that by age 1 children can recognize skin color, and by age 3 they’re already picking up adult cues, even nonverbal ones, about race.

    1. That’s an interesting point. There are so many ways we influence our children without really realizing it. And the idea here that what we allow our children to be surrounded by can be a more powerful influence than what we say to them is a really sobering thought to me.

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