Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner—In its opening chapters, this novel could have come from the pen of Jonathan Safran Foer or a son of Philip Roth. Beginning in the third person, you immediately sympathise with Toby Fleishman, the altruistic hepatologist who has been abandoned by his mercenary ex-wife Rachel and left with the care of his two children. The language is at first dripping with Toby’s maleness—his gloomy sense of obligation and hen-peckedness is only marginally cheered by his discovery of internet dating and the many opportunities this entails. But through the subtle insertion of a narrator who slowly metamorphoses from an omniscient being to Libby, an actual first person, you slowly realise the extent to which you’ve been sucked in by Toby. Libby was (the past tense being important here) a magazine writer who made her career profiling men after discovering that ‘this was the only way to get someone to listen to a woman…Trojan horse yourself into a man, and people would give a shit about you’. After years of struggling with the exact same impossible balancing act of kids, work and sanity that Toby is now faced with, Libby is now an invisible stay-at-home parent, still Trojan-horsing herself into the lives of men because that is her how she survives. Through Libby, we also learn some of Rachel’s story, and it becomes clear that the eponymous Fleishman is not one but two, and both of them are in trouble.
The Fleishmans’ New York lifestyles are ludicrously expensive and the expectations of their children are outrageous. It is only when his eleven-year-old daughter is expelled from summer camp for sexting that Toby realises how much beyond his control things have become: ‘He’d forgotten something essential about life, which was to make sure his children understood his values. No matter how many times you whispered your values to them, the thing that spoke louder was what you chose to do with your time and resources. You could hate the Upper East Side. You could hate the five-millon-dollar apartment. You could hate the private school, which cost nearly $40,000 per kid per year in elementary school, but the kids would never know it because you consented to it. You opted in.’ This struck me as an illuminating observation that middle-class parents everywhere should consider as they drive their SUVs to the private schools they don’t believe in. Despite all this, Fleishman is in Trouble is not a didactic book. The narrative device is brilliant without being tricky and in the end my sympathies were with everyone and the binds they have unwittingly placed themselves in. Whereas previously, as Libby discovered, only ‘mens’ humanity was sexy and complicated’, Brodesser-Akner has well and truly Trojan-horsed these ideas. Everyone is sexy. Everyone is complicated. Everyone is in trouble.