After suffering through years of a tempestuous marriage, New York doctor Toby Fleishman has finally gotten his wife Rachel to agree to a divorce. Before they can make it legal, Rachel disappears. As much as he’d like to just forget her, the existence of the two Fleishman children make that an impossibility, and so Toby sets about trying to find his soon-to-be ex, which proves a whole lot more difficult than he first expected.
The story of Fleishman Is In Trouble is not told by either of the Fleishmans. Instead, debut novelist Taffy Brodesser-Akner hands the narration duties off to Libby, a friend from Toby’s youth, with whom he has fallen out of touch. It’s an interesting device that pays off in spades, allowing the novel’s perspective to deftly move between detached and intimate. For swathes of the book, Libby’s narration is so objective that it may as well have been written in the third person, but her intermittent editorialisation helps deepen our understanding of the couple. Snippets of dissatisfaction with her own personal life enrich the narrative even further, adding to the layered portrait of middle-aged malaise.
Indeed, there’s a potent air of melancholy that hangs heavy throughout Fleishman Is In Trouble. These are not happy people that we are dealing with. Although many of Toby’s post-separation adventures into the land of online dating apps are played for laughs, they are laughs mixed in with a potent dose of sadness. Brodesser-Akner’s writing is ever alert to the quiet miseries of middle age; the slow degradation of a once-reliable body, the feeling that the best things in life have already happened. It’s all downhill from here.
Which is not say that this is a miserable book. Yes, all the characters we meet are varying shades of miserable, but Brodesser-Akner writes about them with such compassion, such a compelling mix of warmth and honesty, that the overall effect is more rousing than depressing. It’s all very reminiscent of the great Charles Bukowksi quote: ‘We’re all going to die, all of us, what a circus! That alone should make us love each other but it doesn’t. We are terrorized and flattened by trivialities, we are eaten up by nothing.’ Fleishman Is In Trouble is a fervent argument for understanding; everyone struggles with the same issues, so why can’t we listen to one another? We’d surely be a lot happier.
Without spoiling anything, when we do learn what Rachel has been up to, our opinion on the events we’ve read shifts considerably. There certainly are two sides to every story. Until that point, we’d been stuck on Toby’s side, led to believe that Rachel was nothing but an evil workaholic who neglected her children. You won’t be surprised to learn that the reality of the situation is far more nuanced.
Fleishman Is In Trouble is a serious contender for debut novel of the year. Witty and insightful, empathetic and honest, melancholic and thoughtful; it’s a total pleasure to read. Let’s hope there’s a lot more to come from Taffy Brodesser-Akner.
Fleishman Is In Trouble is published by Wildfire on 18 June 2019