Fleishman Is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner
Published by Random House, 2019
My rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Fleishman Is in Trouble follows a recently divorced, middle-aged man whose newfound sense of sexual freedom is brought to an abrupt halt when his ex-wife Rachel disappears and he must assume sole responsibility for their children. A social satire in many respects, Brodesser-Akner uses this setup to dissect the nature of marriage, gender roles, class disillusionment, and the pressure felt (particularly by women) to live the seemingly ‘perfect’ life.
The author is very successful in establishing complex and frustrating characters, with none of them being particularly easy to root for. Fleishman’s pompous and often selfish behaviour makes him instantly unlikable, but we soon see how much of this stems from a sense of insecurity and abandonment, as well as how eager he is to be a good father. Rachel too is painted as a cold, distant mother, but the book really hits its stride in the final quarter when we begin to unravel the true reasons behind her apparent disconnect, and eventual disappearance. This is where the strength of the novel really lies, with Brodesser-Akner exploring the idea that how we view a situation is entirely dependent on perspective; with society’s judgement almost always falling in favour of men.
What I found really interesting to consider are the gender stereotypes Brodesser-Akner employs; which ones she chooses to indulge, and which she chooses to subvert. Do we judge Rachel more harshly for being an absent parent because she is a woman? Do we feel more sympathetic towards Fleishman’s single parenthood, and more blasé towards his sexual promiscuities, simply because he is a man?
There’s also some interesting critique of the unique brand of delusional, self-inflicted struggles that can affect the middle and upper classes. Both Fleishman and Rachel have successful, high paying careers, affording them a comfortable existence and many luxuries they take for granted – like nannies and expensive summer camps for their children. As such, any financial stresses they experience are born purely out of their desire to relentlessly climb even higher on the social ladder, making them seem entirely unaware of their own privilege.
On the other hand, the novel’s weak point was its narrative framing, which I found needlessly convoluted. Though ostensibly focussing on Fleishman for much of the novel, in reality, this is Rachel’s story. While Brodesser-Akner could have said something interesting here about women having their voices silenced by the weight of patriarchy – how society reframes female suffering as male inconvenience – Fleishman himself is not our narrator either. Instead, every intimate detail of their lives is relayed to us via Fleishman’s female college friend, Libby. Her wholly unbelievable omniscience added nothing thematically that couldn’t have been explored as effectively from Fleishman’s and Rachel’s own perspectives. It’s arguable she was trying to represent the complete breakdown of communication between the couple by involving a third-party, or to comment on a lack of privacy when people are navigating difficult times, but it’s also possible that’s just me reaching to try and make sense of a stylistic choice that didn’t provide enough of a pay-off to justify how much it slowed down the narrative.
This was altogether surprisingly readable. I must confess to only picking it up because it was longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, and I fully expected to dislike it. I was pleasantly surprised therefore by the depth and nuance it had to offer within its social commentary. If only the narrative structure had been less contrived, allowing for fewer distractions and a more incisive look at the psychology of Fleishman and Rachel. The bones of a great novel are in here somewhere. As it is, I thought it was fine.
You can pick up a copy of Fleishman Is in Trouble from Book Depository by clicking here.