Yes, Toby Fleishman is in trouble. He’s a 41-year-old MD with a specialty in liver diseases and a position at a leading Manhattan hospital, and father of an 11-year-old daughter and an 8-year-old son. That’s all good. But he’s also saddled with a wife that earlier eras would have dismissed as a shrew, but we would condemn with a coarser term.
After 15 years of marriage, Toby has had enough of Rachel. He’s divorcing this high-powered theatrical agent who leads her own agency and mocks him as not ambitious enough. He’s tired of her materialism, her yearning to social climb among Upper East Side one-percenters, her angry outbursts, her excuses for neglecting their children.
Because the author of this first novel is a woman, Taffy Brodesser-Akner, a staff writer for The New York Times Magazine, we expect it to evolve into a he said-she said saga, with both sides getting their say. After all of Toby’s bitching and moaning, won’t Rachel out him for the ungrateful hypocrite he is? That’s not exactly what happens in “Fleishman Is in Trouble.”
The author does cast a satiric and sometimes amusing eye on both the frantic race for status among Rachel and her women friends and the feverish pursuit of sex among newly unencumbered men like Toby. For Rachel, nothing beats the pricey school, penthouse and Hamptons beach house for demonstrating your worth in the world. For Toby, never mind that he’s only 5-foot-5 and not especially handsome, internet meet-ups promise an endless orgy of phone sex and sexting.
But he’s quickly made aware of a downside: “You don’t even have to leave your house to be humiliated.”
In between these warring soon-to-be exes, Brodesser-Akner places two of Toby’s friends from his college days. Seth, the womanizing finance guy, never expects to marry. Elizabeth has given up a magazine career to be a suburban wife and mother. Neither is especially happy. It’s as if whatever choices they make, they’ll inevitably be covered in regret.
The author effectively contrasts her anxious, status-seeking high flyers with the mensch in their midst. Toby Fleishman is a genuinely good doctor and father.
Toward his patients, he is attentive and kind. He reminds his interns to listen to them and their family members. Patients are real people, not just cases.
On the home front, Toby treats his children with the same respect, even when sulky, prepubescent Hannah seems like a junior version of her mother. Solly, gentle and curious about everything, is cast in his father’s mold. Rachel is the rainmaker working late hours, Toby the childminder when the nanny is absent. He could not imagine a life without these kids.
Toby moves to another apartment. One day, Rachel doesn’t show up to take her turn with the kids, as they’ve agreed. A day stretches to three weeks, and Rachel can’t be reached by any means. Toby is furious, their children are worried.
Restless in her own marriage, Elizabeth needs a friendly ear as much as Toby does. So these old friends renew a warm and confiding relationship, at least until she runs into a disheveled and out-of-sorts Rachel at a coffee shop.
Rachel herself never does narrate her story, but as it’s refracted through Elizabeth’s eyes, we begin to glimpse another side of a marriage gone sour. If only a miserable childhood and sexist obstacles in the workplace were enough to make us care more about this woman. She’s unable to appreciate Toby, and any devotion for her children is only expressed in efforts to elevate their status.
Never mind that Elizabeth’s encounter with Rachel reactivates her conviction that equality between the sexes remains a distant goal. Never mind that she’s tired of wives having to “tiptoe around the fragility of a man.”
For this reader at least, it’s too late. Brodesser-Akner has been utterly successful at creating a monster. And she’s created a male protagonist who goes the extra mile to do the right thing. He may be a fool with regard to sex, but he’s no knave. That said, female readers may disagree.
This is a book shot through with the pain of divorce, the droll weirdness of our sexual drives, the inanities of people with too much money, and the bewilderment of the young looking on as adults carry on like children.
If the author had condensed her prose a bit instead of engaging in endless riffs that merely repeat a thought, “Fleishman Is in Trouble” would be even better.