For a long time, Toby Fleishman and his wife Rachel weren’t happy together, and the decision to divorce felt like a relief. But then, in the midst of the separation period, Rachel takes off for a yoga retreat, a day earlier than planned, and then … just doesn’t return, leaving Toby to manage their two kids on his own, all while juggling his career and his newly active dating/sex life.
At first glance, Fleishman Is in Trouble sounds like it’ll be some sort of Mr. Mom story, where the dad finally learns what the mom has had to manage all these years. But author Taffy Brodesser-Akner is up to something much more subversive and clever, and her storytelling method forces readers to reconsider all of their preconceived ideas about gender, sex, and marriage. You see, it turns out that Toby was, throughout the marriage, the more active and affectionate parent, while Rachel was working late nights and focusing on her career seemingly at the expense of the kids. But it’s even more complicated than that.
This novel could be compared to Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise in that the story we’re told at the start isn’t the complete story, and narrative shifts later in the book allow us to see the story in a new light. But I think the perspective shifts in this book are more complicated and interesting.
Early on in the novel, it becomes evident that this third-person narrative is actually a first-person narrative told by an interested observer, who happens to be a long-time friend of Toby’s, and she has her own agenda that becomes more clear as the book goes on as she uses Toby’s story to tell a larger story about marriage and a personal story about her own marriage. Her belief is that such a story will only be heard if it is told through a man’s perspective. It’s what she learned when on the staff of a men’s magazine, writing profiles about men:
In these monologues, I found my own gripes. They felt counted out, the way I felt counted out. They felt ignored, the way I felt ignored, They felt like they’d failed. They had regret. They said all the things I wasn’t allowed to say aloud without fear of appearing grandiose or narcissistic. I imposed my narrative onto theirs, like in one of those biology textbooks where you can place the musculature picture over the bone picture of the human body: I wrote about my problems through them.
That was what I knew for sure, that this was the only way to get someone to listen to a woman — to tell her story through a man. Trojan horse yourself into a man, and people would give a shit about you.
This is, essentially, her method in telling the story of Toby Fleishman, and later, of Rachel Fleishman. It’s not as simple as a role reversal story, however, with Toby taking the traditionally female role. Some of Rachel’s sufferings are very specific to women. I suspect, too, that Rachel’s actions would be read differently if she were a man. For myself, I could see that she was being irresponsible, but I could also understand her feelings, as I could understand Toby’s. Brodesser-Akner makes gendered expectations central to the story without allowing the dilemmas to either cut along clear general lines or entirely subvert them.
I imagine some readers will find their rich-people problems tiresome, but heartache in relationships is universal. Some might, like me, be inclined to think the Fleishmans would be better off if they were willing to accept a less luxurious lifestyle, but that very point turns out to be a bone of contention between them. How much is truly necessary?
And there’s always that additional narrator, imposing her narrative onto that of the Fleishmans, choosing which facts to reveal and when to reveal them. And we, the readers, interpret the book through our own narrative biases. I was suspicious of the Toby-centric perspective from the start because of my own biases. And, to some degree, my suspicions were correct, but not entirely. We’re not allowed to rest in our biases, which makes this book an interesting read, one that I suspect could spark many a heated conversation.