That’s the question that Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s asks in her debut novel, Fleishman Is In Trouble, a brilliant, wise and sometimes terrifying dissection of marriage, divorce and what it’s like navigating through the choppy, shark-infested waters of single life, as a result of the latter.
The best way I can describe the way this novel is to compare it to a horrifying scene in David Lynch’s 1986 cult classic film, Blue Velvet: At the start, we see this idyllic picturesque, suburban neighborhood with blue skies and the sun shining ever so brightly. Everything is perfect.
Or so it seems.
Suddenly, a man has a heart attack while watering the lawn, a dog barks for help as the hose sways this way and that; and, slowly, ever so slowly, the camera pans down on said lawn, into the razor-sharp blades of grass and we see a dark underworld we never knew existed on display as ants and other insects rip each other apart and the next thing you know, within the next minute or so, a severed ear is discovered and, well, let’s just say that chaos ensues and all hell breaks loose and nothing is ever the same again. The End.
That’s this novel, boys and girls!
Our Jewish horny protagonist, Dr. Toby Fleishman, up for a prestigious promotion at the hospital he practices at, is having the time of his life after separating from his supposed (we’ll get to that in a bit) shrew of a wife, shagging women all over New York City, using a smartphone matchmaking app (of course!) a co-worker recommends. He also has joint custody of his adorable, sensitive kids. It’s a seemingly ideal situation.
Until it’s not.
Dr. Fleishman’s wife, Rachel, a highly successful talent agent who runs her own agency, who is described in no uncertain terms, as pretty much a she-demon from hell suddenly disappears, leaving Toby to fend for himself and find out what has happened to his missing wife (and hoo-boy, it’s a doozy!).
That’s enough story for one book, right there, right?
The story is brilliantly narrated by Toby’s longtime friend, Libby, whom he met during a trip to Israel. Libby, it turns out, is also married with children and on the fence about her current station in life, wondering what happened to her semi-charmed life of pot and cigarettes and alcohol. It’s through Libby that we realize that Our Man Toby is really just a Trojan Horse, a plant for us to examine married life and the highs and lows that come with it. Libby’s is basically a living, walking, talking version of that Talking Heads song, Once In a Lifetime. The truth of it is that she’s having a mid-life crisis of her own, resorting to weed and cigarettes again while her befuddled husband Adam watches in horror as his wife seems to be falling apart.
And we haven’t even gotten to drug-addled lothario Seth, another old chum stemming back from that trip to Israel. Libby is flabbergasted to learn that he has possibly found The One and is about to pop the question.
Now, there are a lot of critics out there touting this book as the next Great American Novel.
While it is a smart and witty and mostly terrific novel, and while I enjoyed the exploits and the discoveries (self and otherwise) of these characters, I’ll just come out and say it: These are some awful people that we’re hanging out with for 400-plus pages; and to be honest, there are times when some of their behaviors made me want to cringe and slap them.
With that being said, in the hands of a lesser author, this book and its characters would be intolerable and insufferable, respectively. Yet, as the reader, I got to know them and kinda-sorta like them; they felt lived-in, wholly original and, yes, relatable enough that I actually identified with a few of them, especially Libby (who, I’m fairly certain, is based on the author, a former New York Times writer).
While I have never been divorced and have no plans to do so (unless my wife has other plans in store for me), I can certainly attest to the fact that marriage is tough work and sometimes, let’s face it, not the most pleasant thing in the world.
It’s clear that Brodesser-Akner has a lot on her mind and I think she has mostly accomplished what I’m assuming she set out to do: Dissect the institution of marriage with a microscope and a razor-sharp scalpel.
As for Toby, divorce, and his missing wife, well, let’s just say that we learn that, as always, there are (at least) two sides to every story.
This book, however, heralds a singular sensation in its author.