In the heady days of summer before Margaret Atwood’s sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, The Testaments, was published and before David Cameron had unleashed his memoirs, the most talked about books all centred on love and relationships. From Lisa Taddeo’s riveting non-fiction examination of female sexuality in Three Women to David Nicholls’s latest novel, the lovely Sweet Sorrow about an adolescent relationship, the books that were most hungrily passed around from reader to reader were those concerning our most intimate relationships. Perhaps the hottest book of all, however, has been The New York Times journalist Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s first novel Fleishman Is in Trouble. In fact, so in demand did the novel become, that it was briefly unavailable whilst it was being reprinted. “Believe the hype. Fleishman Is in Trouble is even better than we were promised” was the first line of The Washington Post’s review. Nigella Lawson has said “It has depth, wit, nuance and life. Heart-breaking and funny” and India Knight has expressed dismay that it didn’t make it on to the Booker Prize longlist.
We have sometimes struggled to enjoy novels that are massively hyped but then we didn’t reckon on how sassy Brodesser-Akner’s prose style would be. Fleishman Is in Trouble has been compared to the work of Philip Roth and it is certainly filthy enough. Toby Fleishman is a hepatolgist (liver specialist) in a New York hospital who is in the midst of divorcing Rachel, a super-successful talent agent to whom he’d been married for 14 years. Presumably like anyone who has gone through the break-up of a long-term relationship, he has found his answer to “how miserable is too miserable?” – a question he is also asked by his fearful, still married peers. And yet, now that he is single, Toby finds himself inundated with offers of sex. Brodesser-Akner has fun with this and Toby’s rather louche best friend Seth describes these prospective mates as “Women who would fuck you like they owed you money.” How refreshing all of this is, particularly compared to the bleakness of the real-life women in Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women who seem far from in control of their sexual destinies and also, don’t seem to be having a great deal of fun.
Fleishman feels newly attuned to the fact that the city is full of people “who looked just like regular people but were deep down barely able to stop themselves humping a stranger’s legs as they walked down the street to a drugstore or a meeting or a yoga class”. He has always felt too short and pathetic to be attractive, but is now overwhelmed by the women available to him via dating apps. One weekday morning, he surveys the options his phone offers him: “an Indian woman in her late forties holding an infant; a droopy-eyed white woman with black nails in her mid-forties sucking on a lollipop; one with orange-tan skin and pastel purple hair and tortoiseshell glasses; a pale woman of indeterminate age (but adult) with a pacifier in her mouth; a freckled woman’s cleavage (just her cleavage); a pale woman’s ass crack (just her ass crack)”.
But then we are only seeing this endlessly stimulating array of sexual possibilities from Toby’s point of view. We don’t know how any of these apparently permanently aroused women feel. And where is his soon to be ex-wife Rachel? She texts him to tell him in the middle of the night that she has brought their children (Hannah, 11 and Solly, 9) to his apartment where they are now asleep as she needs to go on a trip. It also transpires that Rachel and he have continued having sex with each other, in silence, at their old home. There is a deep vein of tender melancholy in all of this, as Toby remembers how Rachel used to look at him: “He had spent so many years in the service of trying to relocate that Rachel within the Rachel that she kept proving herself to be.”
The disappearance of Rachel recalls Maria Semple’s comic novel Where’d You Go Bernadette? but glossy gym-obsessed Rachel is ostensibly very different to the kooky architect Bernadette. Make no mistake: the Fleishmans mix in very materialistic circles indeed, where Toby’s job as a top liver specialist is hilariously portrayed as the kind of conscience-salving role that can only be undertaken by someone who is supported by a rich spouse. Rachel feels that, status-wise, Toby suffers from the “embarrassing disability which was that he was a successful doctor at a top-ranked New York hospital” and one of their friends even questions how he would feel if their children wanted to be doctors.
The Fleishman children are beautifully drawn: stubborn, bright Hannah and sweet Solly. There is a very funny scene where Toby discovers Solly has been looking at porn to find out what women’s genitals look like and Toby reassures his son that his curiosity is normal and offers to buy him a picture book with illustrations designed for children his own age. The child is appalled and confesses “No, I don’t want to see it again.”
Children and parenthood loom large in the novel. Toby’s college friend Libby, a former magazine writer who has become a stay-at-home-mother, articulates her fears for her daughter’s generation “It was like those T- shirts all my daughter’s friends were wearing to school now, the ones that said the future is female in big block letters. How they march around in broad daylight in shirts like that. But the only reason it’s tolerated is that everyone knows it’s just a lie we tell to girls to make their marginalization bearable.”
Brodesser-Akner wrote this section of the book the day after Hilary Clinton lost the 2016 US Election to Donald Trump and has said: “I wanted the writing to be timeless, but then I thought, that’s not who I am: I can only write about what is going on at this particular minute, and at this particular minute, I am devastated over the state of gender relations.” In giving the character of Libby a voice, however, she manages to address these concerns head on. Libby reflects “all humans are essentially the same, but only some of us, the men, were truly allowed to be that without apology” but in creating Libby, and also Rachel Fleishman, Brodesser-Akner asserts how alike women and men are in their desires and vulnerabilities and how necessary it is to allow both to exist fully. Fleishman Is in Trouble suggests that modern relationships are in trouble but this is not a novel without hope or joy.
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