Fleishman Is in Trouble, by Taffy Brodesser-Akner, tells the story of newly divorced Toby Fleishman. Toby is ready to recover single life with hook ups and nudes on dating apps, when his newly ex-wife, Rachel, drops their children at his bachelor pad and then disappears. Toby, who wanted to be in a wild and sexy adventure of reclaimed freedom, is now running the frazzled chick-flick plot, trying to balance his job responsibilities and childcare and household management. Oh, and figure out where Rachel is and why no one has heard from her. These ideas of gender roles and life expectations are the theme of this novel, shown again and again in different scenes.
The whole novel is focused on Toby, but it’s told by his old friend Libby. The college friends, with the third member of the trio, Seth, get back in touch after Toby’s divorce. For most of the book, Libby’s sort of an invisible narrator, describing Toby’s experiences and feelings. It works because Libby is Toby’s close female friend, so naturally he shares all his emotions with her. It’s only later when we get to hear anything about Libby’s life, marriage, and choices. (I liked Libby’s men’s-magazine background, mostly because it was a blend of 10,000 small slights — the kind that aren’t even intentional insults meant to push a girl out of the boys’ club, just a total lack of thought — and being the pinnacle of cool girl who gets it, at the same time.)
So, the overall plot. The first two-thirds or so is all about Toby, and Rachel exists only in relation to him. I kind of knew that Rachel’s side hadn’t been told, and would change Toby’s story, but I had no idea how. I knew partly from because it mapped to the biography that Libby talked about, and partly because “dunno, she was just too ambitious out of nowhere” doesn’t feel like a full story. I was, however, shocked by the Joanie storyline. I was ready for Toby to discover that sweet, successful Joanie had been there the whole time, and she’d would step in to look after his kids and his feelings by the end of the book, even though I really didn’t want that to happen. That’s kind of the expected story arc, and I was thrilled to my absolute core when Joanie said thanks, but no thanks.
After Toby’s endless ruminations on Rachel’s ambition, positioning himself as the partner who cared about the Important Things In Life, and Rachel as a greedy workaholic, we see Toby getting passed over for promotion. It’s blamed on his lack hospital facetime, that even though his work was fine, he just wasn’t doing the (unspoken, performative) duties of appearing busy and sociable. He wasn’t putting in any of the social time required, none of the socializing and networking Rachel has been doing the whole time.
Overall, it’s a bit of a dark examination of middle age, but I still loved it. It hit me in the feels, as the young people say, to read about this stage of life. Fleishman Is in Trouble is not bleak, though, even though there’s a bleakness in the exhaustion and repetition of middle age. There’s a wonderful reminder that even though aging is inevitable, and filled with disappointment, there’s a special value in having friends who remember when you drank questionable cocktails in foreign bars.