Fleishman Is In Trouble has been blurbed by many people as a book that accurately represents modern marriage; described as an honest and deep depiction of modern middle class life. Despite coming into this as a fairly privileged, single and uninterested in compromising my life for another person, white 22-year-old, I don’t know if I agree with these takeaways. Once again I am commenting on something I know nothing about, but that’s the fun of all this right?
I really enjoyed this book. I loved the mysterious yet mundane elements of the novel that kept me entirely gripped until the very end. I powered through this a lot quicker than I thought I would and while it has no aforementioned relevance to my life I found its commentary towards people much like myself to be interesting. This book presented a whole new perspective of life to me, middle class marriage, and stirred some thought-provoking arguments within me. Despite really enjoying this novel, I found it to be a bit ageist and tried very hard to set itself apart from the open-minded and accepting world I thought we were trying to prosper. It is all well and good to have personal preference, but the fairly judgemental and silently superior nature of our main character, Toby Fleishman—who in hindsight is quite unlikeable—really gripped my attention and had so many ‘buts’ whirring around my brain.
This novel is very clearly directed towards a particular age bracket. That isn’t to say it isn’t something that can be enjoyed by people beyond this group but I think it is really hard to sympathize with a story about marriage and family when you aren’t living it. Don’t get me wrong, some stories like Poly by Paul Dalgarno, offer readers a lesson in non-traditional familial relationships but what is Brodesser-Akner teaching non-married people other than the narrative that marriage sounds fucking shit? If this is the height of honesty when it comes to marriage, count me out. I felt an overwhelming sense of distaste for ‘young’ people, but especially women, in this novel. Within the first 30 or so pages we are getting a feel for Toby’s newfound dating life and how he has journeyed through the demographics you can find on dating apps.
“He’d initially be democratic in his search parameters on the subject of age. Anyone over twenty-five who wasn’t yet dead was fair game, he figured, though he quickly began to tire of looking at the young ones. It wasn’t how it ached to see their youth, how their skin still showed glow and bounce, how they delighted in the seam of their buttock folding over the top of their thigh like it was on springs—though it absolutely did ache to see those things. It wasn’t how they so clearly believed it would always be like this, or perhaps how they knew it wouldn’t and so decided to enjoy it; that would be worse, if they were enjoying their youth because they knew it wouldn’t last, because who has the sense to do that? It was that he couldn’t bear to be with anyone who didn’t truly understand consequences, how the world would have its way with you despite all your careful life planning. There was no way to learn that until you lived. There was no way for any of us to learn that until we lived it.”
This passage left me feeling quite perturbed. The superiority complex was practically oozing off the pages. I understand that as you get older, life gets harder and that some struggles can’t be understood until a person experiences them but COME ON. Toby, mate, you got fucking DIVORCED, like cool your damn jets. I felt like the novel perpetuated the idea that young people are less than and there were no other reasons given beyond the fact that they are young. As per the passage above, their optimism is distasteful, their lack of experience is laughable. I just find it completely unfair to cast such a broad judgement on a group of people that have no control over what they are being judged for. Building on my feelings about the ageist rhetoric—which is a minor problem in actual society—the issues that are unpacked as completely honest and relatable seem quite unrelatable. Like boo fucking hoo your life is so hard because you live in New York City and have to buy another house and drop your kid at the Hamptons, like really?
“God these idiot children. What did they know about life? What did they know about suffering?”
This is quite an interesting language because Toby is a doctor. He in fact knows a lot about suffering, grief, loss, and death, and yet he places his own suffering at the pinnacle of painful experience. I know pain isn’t comparable but I don’t know if Toby recognizes this. It is clear that he believes no one else has felt pain like he has. Toby either doesn’t care or doesn’t realize that it is completely unfair for him to deposit this judgement upon anyone, when his situation—divorce—is statistically common.
“Nobody had problems except for him.”
During the entirety of Fleishman Is In Trouble I couldn’t decide who annoyed me more, Rachel or Toby (or Hannah, fuck me dead). They were both quite awful to say the least. They are completely unlikeable, to me at least. It’s deniable that awful characters make books utterly delectable though right? (cough cough Sally Rooney). You hate to love them. It’s like a car crash as they say. This is a terrible saying by the way. I NEVER EVER turn to look at a car crash? Who does? You freaking SICKOS. Anyway. Toby’s personality seemed completely built upon doing everything he can to be the opposite of Rachel. While he is easily idolized as being a great Dad, I just think this is such a cop out—it’s his damn job. I found him to be a bit nasty and, as I’ve said, he carries himself with a superiority complex. He valued himself because he ‘wasn’t like the other girls’, basically. He preferred women who smiled in pictures, not the ones who were overtly sexual in their pictures.
“There were other benefits to dating women his age. They weren’t porning in their avatar poses, the way the younger ones were”
Frankly, this assessment is just disgusting. He is explicitly on a dating app to find porn level sex, but god FORBID it to be with a porn star-esque woman. No no no, that is not up to standard for Toby. Give me a fucking break.
Toby also views himself as a better person than most because he values goodness over success. He thought his emotional support for his children and in his role at work outweighed and overvalued the monetary support Rachel provided. The idea of goodness is regularly touched upon in the realm of parenting. It is quickly made clear that Rachel is not just a breadwinner but a Hamptons house-winner. Her financial position allows them to live the lavish life they live. While he notes he is very financially secured himself, his parental role is that of ‘being the mum’. He is applauded for his role in the children’s lives, taking on the tasks that are generally spearheaded by the mother. He prioritizes his family, which is admirable, but also shouldn’t that be the bare minimum? Having a family is optional and if you are living a life of excess for the sake of excess (I mean like having several houses, etc), I don’t think it is fair to praise any parent for their presence in a child’s life. You exist at the hands of your wants, not your needs, so you should be doing the most and the best, simply because you can.
“A poor doctor who, by the way, made more than a quarter of a million dollars, thank you very much”
As the novel starts to wrap up and we are given an explanation about what has happened to Rachel I just couldn’t wrap my head around where I stood on the resolution of the novel. In reflection when I was noting down some thoughts I wrote ‘we love to see people succeed, but see successful people fail’ and this sentiment rings true in this novel (if you have completed the novel and know what happens, just know I would never wish THAT upon someone, but for arguments sake let’s just speak in the realm of a general downfall). I couldn’t, and still can’t, decide if I have a sinister or sentimental idea of the ending of this novel. I guess you could say both. Am I supposed to praise the feminist-esque direction the novel took as a way to explain itself, all while highlighting the frivolous behaviour of some and how they can’t even be satisfied with what they have, when they are considerably more well off than most? Or should I be sad about the truthfulness of the depiction of wealth, because apparently you can have it all and it still never be enough? I think it is completely subjective and not comparable as everyone’s definition of a lot can differ. The one downfall in the case of the resolution for me, despite my ability to make it ambiguous, was in fact the lack of ambiguity. I felt like I had the novel explained to me. In fairness, would I have drawn the clearly stated conclusions? Maybe not, but I think tactical inference could have made the novel’s resolution feel a bit stockier. I felt as though the feminist narrative was really thrust in our face in the last fifth of the book. I understand the point and I do sympathize with it, but it just makes me wonder how we can highlight women in the workforce, call it feminism, and effectively shame overtly sexual women in the same breath? Food for thought on that one.
While I raise a lot of issues and points of contention I want to, in conclusion, reiterate that I did really enjoy this book. It unpacked a lot and provided the reader a lot to think about. Perhaps I am one of the many few who didn’t simply love this book for what it was, or perhaps I am not as tuned into the Fleishman conversations as I should be. This book was incredibly readable, I was gripped from start to finish, the characters were addictive and the story didn’t leave me wondering more than I needed to. But I must say, if this is what the grim reality of life looks like for most, Courtney is going to be in trouble.
Fleishman Is In Trouble
373 pages. 2019.