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

Fleishman Is in Trouble
FLEISHMAN IS IN TROUBLE by Taffy Brodesser-Akner (Published by Random House in 2019)

My Rating: ★★★★

I feel so torn over Fleishman Is in Trouble. On one hand, I found the writing brilliant, but the sheer density of the prose also wore me down. I like how it explores the unequal and gendered division of labor in marriage, but the upper-class context makes me wonder about the universality of its insights (i.e., is it just a case of “rich people problems”?). All this made for an uneven reading experience. If we’re talking about enjoyment alone I would’ve given it 3 stars, but since it’s so much better than most of the longlisted books I’ve read so far (bar Girl, Woman, Other, of course), I’m going with 4 stars.

Fleishman Is in Trouble opens with the newly-divorced Toby Fleishman, who, after years of monogamy and a “youth full of romantic rejection”, finds himself on dating apps and “surrounded by women who want him”. But just as he’s beginning to enjoy his divorced status, his wife Rachel disappears without a trace, leaving him to care for their two children. Toby naturally steps into this role, despite his confusion and anger, because he spends more time with their children anyway—he’s the spouse with the lower income (if you consider $285,000 a year low) and the “wife” of their marriage—and unlike Rachel, who’s too ambitious to be at ease in a caregiving role, Toby appears to enjoy it.

With this clever role reversal, the novel throws into sharp relief the injustices that wives suffer quietly in marriage. For example, Toby gets passed over for a promotion because of the leaves he had to take for his children. In the aftermath of their divorce, he’s still helplessly dependent on Rachel’s much larger income for child support. As the narrator says:

That was what I knew for sure, that this was the only way to get someone to listen to a woman—to tell her story through a man; Trojan horse yourself into a man, and people would give a shit about you.

However, in the last third of the book, another interesting reversal happens that further complicates the commentary on gender roles. (There might be some spoilers ahead—if you haven’t read this, just skip to the last paragraph.) For the first two parts of the book, the narrator, Libby, was sympathetic towards Toby and antagonistic towards Rachel, understandably because she’s Toby’s old friend from college. In the last third, however, she switches allegiance and presents us with Rachel’s side. Libby reveals how Rachel is burdened not only with the role of breadwinner, but also with the rest of the invisible labor that women shoulder in a marriage. Here, we see that Rachel is punished for being too ambitious and not ‘maternal’ enough; plus, all the planning and organizing she does for the household goes unrecognised and unappreciated by Toby. In the meantime, Toby might have been passed over for a promotion, but he’s also simultaneously lauded for being adept in ‘feminine’ tasks like cooking and childcare. Women really do have it worse, the narrator seems to be saying; feminism has changed nothing, and we still have to “tiptoe around the fragility of a man” instead of “becoming the person that others had to tiptoe around”.

As much as I agree with this assessment, I also had a few problems with it, both in terms of its execution and in the adequacy of its commentary. In terms of execution, I felt that Rachel’s point of view was presented in a rushed manner, in a way that was meant to overturn what we know of their marriage as presented from Toby’s point of view. Her part was more a diatribe against the patriarchy rather than the nuanced character exploration afforded to Toby. In terms of commentary, I felt that while gender was adequately addressed, its intersection with neoliberalism was not. After all, Rachel’s ambition and “social climbing” are rooted in the belief that the extreme wealth of her peers is attainable through sheer hard work, and in the belief that all signifiers of wealth (e.g., a house in the Hamptons) are desirable in the first place.

However, despite its flaws, I still think that Fleishman Is in Trouble is well worth reading. The writing is brilliant, with exquisitely constructed sentences, biting insights about human nature (although specifically the rich white kind), and a chatty quality that makes it readable. While the novel did become circuitous and polemical in places, it’s still a sharp, clever, and complex commentary about marriage, gender roles, and the social sanctions that remain aimed at punishing women in our supposedly post-feminist world. I think it deserves a spot on the shortlist. 4 out of 5 stars.

Reviews for the Women’s Prize 2020 Longlist

  1. Weather by Jenny Offill – ★★★★
  2. Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo – ★★★★
  3. Fleishman Is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner – ★★★★
  4. Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson – ★★★★
  5. Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams – ★★★
  6. The Dutch House by Ann Patchett – ★★½
  7. Dominicana by Angie Cruz – ★★
  8. Girl by Edna O’Brien – Will not read; no rating
  9. The Mirror & the Light by Hilary Mantel – Will not read; no rating

Have you read this book? What did you think of it? Let me know in the comments!

Find me on Goodreads! | Read from March 31-April 7, 2020

13 thoughts on “Book Review: Fleishman Is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner

  1. Great review! This is one of my recent favorites (I think I read it back in January?) and I’ve still been thinking about it–I loved the writing and narration style. I’m VERY curious to see if it’ll make the shortlist!!

    1. Yes, the writing and the narration were A+++! And it also does have staying power – like you I’ll be thinking about this for some time, too. I’m not sure what to expect for the shortlist this year but I’m prepared to be surprised 😅

  2. Great review! I was similarly torn with this one. The writing, themes, and characterisation were largely very good, but I found the structure and narrative framing needlessly convoluted. Given some of the others on the longlist, I’d also be happy to see this one shortlisted though.

    1. Yes, same thoughts. Sometimes it made the same point over and over again, and there were just too many paragraphs that went on and on about underboob, sideboob, straight-up boobs, etc. 😅 Though despite its being convoluted I do admire it for trying, so like you I’m rooting for it to be shortlisted too.

  3. Great review! I really like your point that the intersection of feminism and neoliberalism should have been more deeply explored; given that Libby (someone who does not quite share the same ideals as Rachel) was the narrator, there was definitely room to explore that. I’d be happy to see this novel on the shortlist as well! I think that where The Dutch House came up short in providing deep commentary on the invisible labor of women, Fleishman is in Trouble was sharper and more successful.

  4. I looked up this author and was not surprised to see she is in Generation X. Her mother character has all the hallmarks of women from that generation: wants the best career, marriage, children, house, and thinks she can do it all. At least, that’s how I envision this character before she decides something has to go, and it’s the family. I’m so focused on generations right now thanks to this online book club I’m in for which we read a book about the complaints of Gen X women. Gen X women also are expected to remain sexy in a way moms weren’t prior to Gen X. One thing I remember discussing in book club was just how bourgeois and thoughtless some of the Gen X women were encountered in our book could be, reminding me of the characters in this novel and your comment about neoliberalism.

    1. Wow, your comment actually clarifies a lot about the book—perhaps it’s not a problem of all women in general rather than it is of Gen X women, who were made to believe that they could “have it all”. Thanks for the insight!

  5. Literary Elephant

    Ah, great review! I agree with so much of what you said, which seems to be rare- opinions vary so widely on this one! I absolutely loved the writing and the narrative point of view that the author used, but even so this wasn’t a perfect read for me either. I think you make some good points about the way wealth is presented here that I hadn’t entirely considered- I took most of the wealth content as a scathing criticism, a sort of “people shouldn’t have or want this much money” dig, but I think you’re right, I think there’s more too it than that and it simply wasn’t unpacked enough; Libby and Rachel definitely seem to want different things, so it would make sense for there to be some push-and-pull about what the desired outcome of “success” looks like, which the book is ultimately lacking. Food for thought (the book certainly isn’t lacking that!). Anyway, I’m glad you appreciated the read, and I am also rooting for this one to make the shortlist, for the sheer brilliance of the attempt!

    1. Yes, there definitely is that layer to wealth from Toby’s point of view, but I would’ve appreciated to see it from Libby’s and especially Rachel’s as well. And that’s an interesting point of contrast—Libby seems so sympathetic to Rachel in the end that I didn’t consider that she’d want something different from her. Rooting for it for the “sheer brilliance of the attempt” is really the best way to put it! Better a book that aimed high and didn’t quite hit the mark than one that hit it without trying anything new.

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