Hardcover, 373 pg.
Read: October 22-23, 2019
Hr, which was what his preferred dating app was called, was now his first-thing-in-the-morning check. It had replaced Facebook, since when he looked at Facebook, he became despondent and overwhelmed by the number of people he hadn’t yet told about his divorce. But Facebook was also a landscape of roads not taken and moments of bliss, real or staged, that he couldn’t bear. The marriages that seemed plain and the posts that seemed incidental and not pointed, because they telegraphed not an aggressively great status in life but a just-fine one, those were the ones that left him clutching his heart. Toby hadn’t dreamed of great and transcendent things for his marriage. He had parents. He wasn’t an idiot. He just wanted regular, silly things in life, like stability and emotional support and a low-grade contentedness. Why couldn’t he just have regular, silly things? His former intern Sari posted a picture of herself bowling at a school fundraiser with her husband. She’d apparently gotten three Strikes. “What a night,” she’d written. Toby had stared at it with the overwhelming desire to write “Enjoy this for now” or “All desire is death.” It was best to stay off Facebook.
Back with my In Medias Res post about this book, I pretty much covered everything I want to say about this book. I was hoping that the last half would pick up (and I almost decided it did). But, really, it just kept doing what it had been and ended up killing almost all my interest in the book.
The official blurb says:
Toby Fleishman thought he knew what to expect when he and his wife of almost fifteen years separated: weekends and every other holiday with the kids, some residual bitterness, the occasional moment of tension in their co-parenting negotiations. He could not have predicted that one day, in the middle of his summer of sexual emancipation, Rachel would just drop their two children off at his place and simply not return. He had been working so hard to find equilibrium in his single life. The winds of his optimism, long dormant, had finally begun to pick up. Now this.
As Toby tries to figure out where Rachel went, all while juggling his patients at the hospital, his never-ending parental duties, and his new app-assisted sexual popularity, his tidy narrative of the spurned husband with the too-ambitious wife is his sole consolation. But if Toby ever wants to truly understand what happened to Rachel and what happened to his marriage, he is going to have to consider that he might not have seen things all that clearly in the first place.
A searing, utterly unvarnished debut, Fleishman Is in Trouble is an insightful, unsettling, often hilarious exploration of a culture trying to navigate the fault lines of an institution that has proven to be worthy of our great wariness and our great hope.
I’d summarize it as: two messed-up people in a very troubled marriage (that had been troubled for a while), going through a divorce and bringing out the worst in each other and themselves. Hurting careers, friendships, their children and each other along the way. By the time we meet them, they’re like many going through a bitter divorce, and are (at least then) terrible, horrible, no good, very bad people doing terrible, horrible, no good, very bad things to each other (while exonerating themselves of all but a few faults). And this is supposed to be comedic.
All of which could have been addressed years ago if they’d just talked to each other and worked together, rather than keeping score, justifying themselves, assuming the worst of each other and holding grudges. But that’s neither here nor there.
There were some saving graces:
- Brodesser-Akner’s writing, there are some great passages, great insights, and sentences worthy of praise, study, and quotation. As I said previously, the prose is delightful, there are turns of phrase that I’ve stopped to re-read. Brodesser-Akner has a sharp wit and an equally sharp eye for observation/social commentary. If/When she publishes a second novel, the technical aspects of b>Fleishman is in Trouble were strong enough that I’ll be back.
- When Toby (a hepatologist) is at work and caring for patients and/or instructing his interns, he’s a great character. Inspirational even. I’d read a book about him at work dealing with the bureaucracy of a hospital, insurance companies, young doctors and suffering patients and probably do little beside sing its praises. This, it should be stressed, is not that book.
- Toby’s friend Libby. I don’t approve of (not that she asked)/appreciate a lot of her choices and attitudes. But she feels real, she’s genuine, she’s relatable (even—especially—when she’s treating her husband like garbage for no good reason), she deals with her problems (and her friends) in a way that most readers can see themselves in. She actually has a greater role in the novel than you think she will in the first half (or more), but the book would really benefit for more of her.
I have neither the time, inclination, or interest in listing my problems with this novel—just see my summary of the novel as a whole, and we’ll call it good.
Based on some of what I’ve read about this novel, and my own observations, you could get away with calling this a Feminist John Updike. Which is a pretty good summation of why I wouldn’t recommend it, actually. It’s also reductionistic, so you probably shouldn’t say it. However, if a Feminist Updike sounds like something you’d really enjoy (not just are mildly curious about)—you might find yourself enjoying this.