It takes about a few dozen pages to realise what a clever trick Taffy Brodesser-Akner has played on her readers.
As Fleishman is in Trouble starts to blossom, we are treated to every angry, lude and tender thought running through the aggrieved mind of newly divorced father Toby Fleishman. We follow him as he shuttles his two kids around (tending to their emotional needs) sexts women on his very active dating app (tending to his physical needs) navigates drama at the hospital where he works as a hepatologist, and re-plays over and over every moment, past and present, in which his ex-wife has wronged him.
He is a multi-dimensional person, living a multi-dimensional life, experiencing a full gamut of emotions, and we feel for him, because his ex-wife Rachel is a monster, and here is Toby, picking up the broken pieces of her bad mothering.
But is she really a monster? Slowly and so satisfyingly, the novel reveals itself, petal by petal. This is a novel about women, told through the lens of a man. Things are not what they seem, how Toby explains them to us. In fact, Toby is not the narrator, his college friend Elizabeth is, and she’s wrestling with her own demons – if only Toby could pull his head out of his ass long enough to listen to the women around him. If that were the case, maybe his marriage could have played out differently. Maybe he wouldn’t have sown the seeds of Rachel’s eventual, impending failure and, in turn, his own.
That is the cleverness of Brodesser-Akner’s writing, that she is able to use the most sympathetic figure in popular culture, a straight white man, as a conduit for communicating the plight of two very different women, for communicating how society values motherhood more than it values mothers.
And yet, there are no identifiable heroes nor villains in Fleishman. That is the beauty of Brodesser-Akner’s writing, that she has enough empathy for everyone – everyone is struggling, everyone is just trying to navigate through marriage, identity, capitalism, gender norms, and the 21st Century measures of success we’re all taught to aspire to.
If you are a woman, you will get it, like Brodesser-Akner gets it. Facets of her real-personhood could be gleamed in Elizabeth. She too lives in the suburbs with two children and a (by her own admission) great husband, she too put in time at a men’s magazine, she too has probably felt the disparity between having so much from the outside while drowning on the inside.
If you are a man, hopefully you will get it too, by virtue of Brodesser-Akner’s intimate, heart-felt story-telling. Hopefully through Toby Fleishman, you will extend your sympathy to the women of this novel, and the women of this world.