book review: Fleishman Is In Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner
Overview: Rachel Fleishman has always been perfectly conventional. After struggling to find love and fit in throughout her childhood, she had a fire to excel in every way having the perfect business, husband, and children and winning over everyone in the cutthroat NYC private school scene to land the best playdates. Toby Fleishman loved that devotion to convention even as he loathed the climber-like air it gave her and her absence at the dinner table as he took on more of the work towards raising the children as she grew the agency. They came to resent each other. And then Rachel disappeared. This is the story, told from the perspective of Toby's college friend, of why Rachel stopped talking to her family and what happened to them when they left. Overall: 3.5
Characters: 4 The characters in the book are all detailed and interesting and multifaceted. Everyone who enters the story is deeply multifaceted and given an intense amount of backstory spanning from their childhoods. Even the Fleishman children are portrayed as detailed and complicated within their very short lives. Toby Fleishman just wants to be a doctor working on livers, even as he does feel a certain amount of dissonance about the stagnation of his career. He loves his kids and just wants to spend time with them, but he also has latent anger at Rachel for not being more of the typical mother figure, even as she affords them their lifestyle. He feels conflicted about the luxuries her money brings in and has a complicated sense of morality and honor around which of the luxuries he willingly accepts and which he begrudges.
Rachel is driven and strong. She wants children in theory, because that's what she's meant to do, but she's never felt deeply maternal feelings. Instead, the children have brought her a certain amount of despair and a feeling of a lack of autonomous personhood. The children make her even more dedicated to push forward and ascend in her career to feel like she has control and a sense of self still. She can come off as cold, but the book is always careful to give her dimension and make her sympathetic, even from Toby's more bitter, frustrated point of view.
Plot: 3.5 The book is broken into three sections. In the first, we intensely focus on Toby, his new life after his divorce, his job at the hospital, and his foray into dating (or, more precisely, random hook ups). The book spends plenty of time acclimating us to Toby's new normal and giving us flashbacks to his childhood, relationship with his parents, meeting Rachel, and their life as newlyweds and new parents. This book certainly doesn't suffer from a lack of information. This is all fine and interesting enough, though I did sometimes struggle to figure out why I was really supposed to care about every detail and minor woah of this random forty-something man. But it works.
Then there's the middle section where he realizes that Rachel has disappeared and won't be coming back to claim the kids or contact him anytime soon. This raises the stakes of the story, but it's where the wheels continue to fall off as well. Toby gets increasingly frazzled with time, and while he's going through a major life event where he still has to hold it together, his days are also still very rote and repetitive. He's trying to balance his sex life, his kid, his job, and his seething anger at his soon to be ex wife. It would be a bit more compelling if we had somewhat of a grasp on why Rachel fell off the face of the earth and her motivations there. I didn't want to DNF the book, but I continued to question why exactly this was a story I needed to read.
It was the final section that really lost me to skim reading as fast as humanly possible to be done. Remember when I said I wanted to know Rachel's motivations? I guess this was the answer to my prayers, but I immediately wanted to take it back. We basically, in one giant monologue, get Rachel's side of the story starting with the days leading up to her disappearing. It's all the events of part 2 except condensed and told from Rachel's perspective. Which can pretty much be summed up to having a burnt out nervous breakdown. It's understandable given what she's been through with a high pressure job, kids she has conflicted feelings about, and a divorce as well as the regular social pressures, but the details of her disappearance feel even more absurd and ungrounded than not knowing. Like most things in this book, it was just drug out way too long and felt disconnected and disjointed from the rest of the book.
Also, the ending was a bit of a frazzled let down. It ends with our strangely chosen narrator monologuing about her own life (more on that later) and then half a sentence of a bone to close the actual story we became invested in. I'm used to ambiguous or sad or unfinished endings. I mostly read literary fiction now. But there was something uniquely unsatisfying about this ending after the immense amount of detail we received up till that point. It just felt like the author got too tired to think of a resolution.
Writing: 3 This is really where I get frustrated with the book. For one, the prose is dense. It's artful and interesting. She's good at stringing together words in a pleasing way and making sharp moments that stick out in the text. The world came alive as clear pictures in my mind, but it was just so hard to wade through. There aren't chapters, just the three parts, and the paragraphs were so long that a single one would fill the entire screen of my Kindle, even with the font on the smallest setting. It was just a lot to take in. Taffy also likes using lists. So many lists. And they're entertaining for the first few items, but they just don't quite know where to stop.
My bigger issue is with the choice of how to narrate the book. At first it seems to be told in close third person, and then you start to realize that this narrator is actually a character. (There will be spoilers to a mild degree from here on out). Libby, Toby's college friend, has decided to write the story of Rachel and Toby Fleishman to sell as her next novel and revive her career. But this just makes no sense. It's told in extremely intimate third person, boring into Toby's head in so many scenes relaying his private thoughts. And then it switches to first person for the few scenes she's actually a part of (which isn't many, she's a super minor character). The final section is, I guess, Rachel telling her own story to Libby when she happens to run into her at a cafe.
The more Libby becomes a part of the book, the more it unravels. And by the end, she's turned the tables and made the story of the Fleishman's all about herself. It just felt unnatural for this meta concept to be inserted into the story, and Libby really didn't add anything in being the narrator or even being a supporting character in the story. It just grew increasingly irritating. Rachel and Toby's story is an interesting portrait of mid-life and the constraints of marriage and the imbalance between partners even when the gender stenotypes are flipped, but the book just feels a need to sabotage itself with a few peculiar choices.
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