How miserable is too miserable? Taffy Brodesser-Akner poses the question and successfully mines it for laughs in her first novel. But comedy is not her primary goal here. “Fleishman Is in Trouble” is funny, yes, but also savage, landing blows with efficient and deadly precision, fearless in its ravaging of gender double standards, the inequities of modern marriage and the bewildering intersection of sex and technology.
The would-be hero is Toby Fleishman, a 41-year-old Manhattan doctor who has just discovered app dating (although “dating” is hardly the right word). Father of two and in the process of divorcing Rachel, his ambitious, social-climbing shrew of a wife, Toby is stunned by the carnal universe inside his phone. So many choices! So many inscrutable emojis! So many assertive, attractive, intelligent women ready for hookups!
“These were women who would not so much wait for you to call them one or two or three socially acceptable days after you met them as much as send you pictures of their genitals the day before.”
Toby’s split with Rachel has been ugly and exhausting. She seems to care more about work and scheduling play dates with the offspring of rich and influential parents than she does about Toby or their children.
And now she has vanished and isn’t responding to texts or calls, leaving Toby to manage the kids during summer vacation, all in the name of me time.
Toby is such a mess that he can’t even narrate his own nightmare. That duty falls to his college friend Libby. Once a writer at a men’s magazine, now a stay-at-home mom in the suburbs, Libby is at a bit of a loss herself. She can’t seem to write the novel she wants to write. She misses her old job, although she struggled with its unspoken institutional belief that men’s stories matter most. The “only way to get someone to listen to a woman,” she knows, is “to tell her story through a man.”
What if “Fleishman Is in Trouble” isn’t about a cold, dismissive wife who doesn’t appreciate her husband? What if there’s another story? What if it’s about the devaluation of women once they have children? Or maybe the insane expectations on working mothers, on stay-at-home mothers, on women, period? What if the “The Future Is Female” T-shirts are all we get by way of compensation for a very bad deal?
A staff writer for the New York Times Magazine, Brodesser-Akner turns the tables on Toby with wit, insight and a bracing, simmering rage. She offers a view of truths we may fear to examine too closely. How miserable is too miserable? Keep asking, she urges. Maybe one day, we’ll find out.
Connie Ogle is a writer in Florida.
Fleishman Is in Trouble
By: Taffy Brodesser-Akner.
Publisher: Random House, 374 pages, $27.