Tuesday 7 July 2020

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

If it's a sharp, witty and richly textured skewering of a marriage in crisis that you're after, then look no further than Fleishman is in Trouble. Struggling, like so many of us, with concentration waxing and waning during lockdownmy reading has become something of a hit and miss affair. Yet Taffy Brodesser-Akner's incisive and unexpectedly affecting dissection of a failing relationship between two forty-something New Yorkers had me hooked from the off. 

Thematically, there is so much to unpack in what is incredibly her debut novel. There's the unsettling, revelatory parade of sexual availability through online dating, where body parts are shared more readily than small talk. Then there's a female narrator telling a story written through the prism of a male protagonist - because that might be the only way to get it taken seriously. Not to mention the envy of the merely affluent for the lifestyle of the uber-rich and the struggle of working mothers to balance the requirements of a demanding job with family life. And that - because, after all, this is a blog post and not a dissertation - is just for starters. 

Toby Fleishman is a hepatologist in a New York hospital; born into a Jewish family based in Los Angeles, he has become successful on his own terms. He's an excellent doctor to his patients, well respected in his field but earning only a fraction of the salary of the Wall Street bankers and financiers in his social circle. He's taken primary responsibility for the upbringing of his two young children - Hannah who is almost twelve and nine-year-old Solly - because his wife Rachel has a stellar career as an agent who represents emerging and established artists of stage and screen. 

As the novel opens, Toby and Rachel are recently separated and Toby is feeling his way in an unaccustomed world where he is an object of intense sexual desire - courtesy of his newly acquired online dating app. But this astonishing trajectory is curtailed when Rachel disappears unexpectedly, leaving him with the children she was supposed to be taking on holiday to The Hamptons. Cue child-care upset and the trauma of siblings already having to deal with a parental break up, not to mention unwanted complications for Toby and his current prospects for promotion at work.

All this is recounted to us by Toby's old friend Elizabeth, who layers his story with her own interpretation. Elizabeth weaves the history of their own relationship into her retelling of Toby's current dilemmas - their travels as students in Jerusalem with their mutual friend Seth, their falling apart and back together again across the passage of years. Then, finally and adroitly, Elizabeth inverts her viewpoint to Rachel.

As a staff writer for The New York Times magazine, Brodesser-Akner is used to interviewing subjects and presenting multiple perspectives, and it shows. This is deft, dense and masterful prose. If there is a critcism, it is that it can be hard to care about two self-absorbed characters who seem to have it all and whose chief dislike - apart from each other - is reserved for those even more privileged than themselves. Of course, whether you really need to like the characters in a novel is a matter for a whole other debate. There's always the pleasure of realising you can have plenty and still be miserable. But, whatever you do, keep on reading: the conclusion is perfectly formed and surprisingly poignant.

Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner is released in the UK in paperback by Wildfire. Many thanks to the publishers and Anne Cater for my review copy

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