Welcome to ‘What We’re Reading,’ Manqué’s book column. Occasionally timely, but never committedly so, we aim to dissect and occasionally recommend books both popular and overlooked.
If you have a Twitter account or if you read any sort of national news outlet, or maybe if you have access to the internet at all, you’ve heard about Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s debut novel, Fleishman Is in Trouble. Just as we were growing a bit exhausted from the (rightfully earned, IMO) fanfare news cycle surrounding Sally Rooney, Brodesser-Akner’s highly-anticipated tome about divorce, marriage, and perspective stepped in to pick up the mantle. Before we knew it, we were plunged into another round of “this is as good as everyone is saying it is, right?” Right.
Brodesser-Akner is an astute profile writer, lauded for the fresh perspective she lends her subjects. Her repertoire in that realm, in particular, has made her into a specific kind of literary figure that would make other, lesser writers seethe with jealousy if they didn’t just enjoy reading her work so damn much. (I began reading her stuff in college, when she profiled Nicki Minaj for GQ, although I didn’t know it yet because I was too media-illiterate to pay close attention to bylines — something I regret.)
If you want to read more of her work in that realm or delve into the “how did you go from writing these celebrity profiles to writing a lengthy, heady first novel?” question, just Google her, because she’s done countless interviews both in print and podcast where she addresses just that, and I’m not interested in re-hashing what’s already out there. I’m here to talk about Fleishman Is in Trouble, which I inhaled in a single day this past week, and which I think you should do, too, if you find yourself with any downtime this summer.
Fleishman Is in Trouble, for the bulk of its narrative, follows its eponymous main character as he navigates his feelings during a divorce with the mother of their two children. They are a wealthy, uptown couple. He is a hepatologist (liver doctor); she, Rachel, is an agent, and the real breadwinner of the pair. They have, together, more money than anyone I have ever personally liked, although they often fight about whether or not being able to afford a home in the Hamptons constitutes enough of an income to support their lifestyle, whatever that means. (Somehow, over the course of the novel, Brodesser-Akner convinced me to forgive them for this.)
This story is very much the kind which primarily takes place in the minds of its characters, but the key narrative facts are this: the Fleishmans are divorcing, it is summer, and Rachel takes off one night without warning, leaving her estranged husband to take care of their two children and figure out how to single-handedly reorient his family post-separation. Toby wants to be angry at Rachel for willingly eschewing her maternal duties, but he doesn’t want to be That Asshole that disparages her at any given opportunity. He wants the world to know that he is the victim of an overly-ambitious, cold woman, but he doesn’t want to be victimized. He is also debilitatingly insecure in his own body and has trouble believing that women might have sustained sexual interest in him, yet is outraged to hear that Rachel’s boss once made a pass at her. In other words, Toby Fleishman is a Wife Guy.
Like the many, many wife guys before him, he spends much of his waking time tugging at one of the novel’s central questions: how do we cope with the inherent lack of true individualism that heterosexual marriage necessarily requires while also executing a trajectory designed by two entirely different people who are disproportionately allowed to take up space in the world? Toby doesn’t seem to know where the taking ends and the giving begins in his relationship with Rachel, and he seems even less aware that all of his marital problems more or less revolve around that singular dynamic.
Like, I’d argue, almost all good fiction, the story takes a sharp twist in the latter quarter of the book, when the reader finally learns exactly what it is that Rachel has been up to after disappearing that summer. Like, I’d argue, all stories, this one has another side that will make you reexamine the version of it you’ve been told all along. In this way, the story reminded me of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, or, more recently, Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise, both of which use similar tools to force questions about how, exactly, we treat women with stories — which is to say, women’s lives, in general.
This is not a story that could have been done justice if it were written by a cis man, and that is what makes it such a delight to read. In fact, notably, it’s not even told by a man — but rather, by Toby’s college friend, Libby. (Brodesser-Akner does not reveal this until after quite some time, and huge chunks of the story appear to be written in your basic third-person omniscient, which I suspect is very, very much intentional.) Like many a young woman in a male-female friendship, Libby is hostile to Toby’s romantic partner until she realizes this hostility is the product of a skewed, gendered narrative imposition.
“Rachel and I, we’d been raised to do what we wanted to do, and we had; we’d been successful, and we’d shown everyone. We didn’t need to wear apocryphal T-shirts because we already knew the secret, which was this: that when you did succeed, when you did out-earn and outpace, when you did exceed all expectations, nothing around you really shifted,” Libby writes. “You still had to tiptoe around the fragility of a man.”
That realization, that shift in perspective, that reconsideration of perception, doesn’t come as a shock inasmuch as the only logical, emotionally responsible development I can imagine. It isn’t necessarily a come together woo woo determination. It is much, much more Fried Green Tomatoes than that. The women in Fleishman Is in Trouble don’t at the end start a book club or a feminist nonprofit; they don’t decide to hate men or even to try to define themselves in opposition to them, the way that a made for television special might insist they should. That unsatisfying conclusion has had its time. Instead, in Brodesser-Akner’s world, her smart and educated women characters begin to recognize that the gendered social structures which seek to confine them are too pernicious to be taken down by a simple binary. In that way, the narrative doesn’t so much end inasmuch as it exhales wholly to its final passage, leaving readers to take up its rhythm on their own.
“That’s good,” Toby remarks near the novel’s end. “I like a nebulous ending.”
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