While reading the first 20 pages of “Fleishman is in Trouble” by Taffy Brodesser-Akner (Random House), I wondered why critics were making such a fuss about the book. It was one of the big novels of the summer and two friends had given it the highest rating on the Goodreads website. Was I really going to be reading 370-plus pages about a nearly divorced, New York City Jewish doctor who couldn’t keep his eyes off the suggestive photographs sent to him by women from the dating site he joined? I might have understood that if my friends were male, but they aren’t. Fortunately, when 40-something Toby Fleishman reconnects with two friends from his college years – including the novel’s narrator, Elizabeth Epstein Slater – the work becomes a very funny look at life and love for those in their 40s. Well, let’s clarify that: the novel focuses on rich people who seem to have everything, but can’t stop complaining about how imperfect their lives are (even many living in developing countries or, actually, in many impoverished places in the U.S., would be willing to change places with them).
While that does make it sound like I didn’t enjoy the novel, I did. However, the characters whine and whine so much that by the end of the book, I was ready to get out of their heads. Part of the problem may be generational. Toby and his almost ex-wife are trying to have it all: powerhouse careers, a family and an emotionally supportive marriage. Toby and Rachel did seem to have a wonderful marriage at first, but then the children arrived. Rachel feels that even though Toby makes an excellent living as a doctor, he’s not making enough money to support them in the style she wants. This leads her to open her own public relations group. The demands her clients make on her time seem far greater than Toby’s patients on his.
Since Toby believed their marriage was over long before Rachel, he was relieved when she finally agreed to a divorce. Toby may have moved out of the family apartment, but, since Rachel works so many hours, he’s there every night to make dinner for their children, in addition to having them stay with him other times. A problem arises, though, when Rachel drops off the children at Toby’s apartment a day earlier than expected. The early drop-off goes relatively smoothly, but, when Rachel doesn’t show up to take the children for their vacation in the Hamptons, Toby begins to worry. Even worse, Rachel isn’t answering her cell phone and her assistant at work doesn’t seem to know her whereabouts. Rather than admitting to the children that their mother may have deserted them, Toby lies, saying Rachel had a work emergency and that he will take them to the Hamptons himself.
Their two children – 9-year-old Solly and 11-year-old Hannah – do not adjust well to the disappearance of their mother. Hannah is a typical tween and is very concerned with fitting in with the other students at her private school. She’s sarcastic and unhappy with anything and everything that her father does and says. Toby can’t decide if this is because of the divorce or just the start of her teenage years. Solly is much easier to handle, although he misses his mother more as the weeks go by.
While it might seem that the narrator is completely on Toby’s side, she does reveal not only the difficulties she’s faced from society’s unfair and unrealistic expectations of women, but those Rachel also faces. What becomes clear is that many of these people – men and women – are angry about the choices they’ve had to make in life. Sometimes I found it easy to sympathize with that anger (for example, being treated unfairly at work because you have a family emergency), but others were harder (for example, doing things you don’t like with people you don’t like to help your children’s social life at a school that does not teach real values). The saddest part of the split between Toby and Rachel is that their original understanding of what they wanted for their family seemed the same. Both agreed that they wanted to support their children in ways they felt were important. Unfortunately, while Toby meant emotional support, Rachel assumed that meant financial support. In other words, making a quarter of a million dollars is not enough to give their children the life she wants them to have. To be fair to Rachel, Toby seemed to have no objective to living that life if she was the one providing the money.
“Fleishman is in Trouble” seems to have hit a chord with a large number of people; it not only made bestseller lists, but is being turned into a movie. The novel’s greatest success was in managing to make me see all the different characters as real and human, even though that also made me want to yell at them or lecture them about their lives. It can be hard to feel bad about people who are not only that rich, but seem to have the world at their feet. Yet, they are so angry and so miserable that they’ve lost their sense of perspective. Fortunately, the author’s humorous approach to their lives allows readers to laugh at them, otherwise “Fleishman” might be too sad to read.