As the story opens, life sounds like an erotic carnival for Toby Fleishman. A New York doctor newly separated from his wife, Toby has arrived at the age of 41 to discover a city suddenly flush with women who want him. Now. “His phone was aglow from sunup to sundown,” the narrator writes, with texts that contained “underboob and sideboob and just straight up boob and all the parts of a woman he never dared dream he would encounter.” After enduring a chronically nerdy adolescence and a tense 14-year marriage, Toby is dazzled by this sexual bounty. “Could it be,” he wonders, “that he wasn’t as repulsive as he’d been led to believe by the myriad rejections of just about every single girl he’d ever made eye contact with?”
Brodesser-Akner demonstrates an anthropologist’s thoroughness in her study of contemporary adult dating and its catalogue of sexual practices, but her prose, ringing with manic energy, is obscenely funny. She seems equally amused and horrified as she traces the pixels of lust and humiliation flitting across social media.
Poor Toby is thrust into a state of constant arousal, punctuated by moments of deep confusion about his impending divorce from a successful talent agent. What should he reveal to his colleagues about the dissolution of his marriage? How should he respond to those spears of concern from old friends who poke at the carcass of his marriage like gleeful boys around a dead squirrel? And most baffling of all, what should he tell his son and daughter, ages 9 and 11, who find themselves suspended between two homes?
Perhaps every engaged couple should read this book before they tie the knot — the way amateur skydivers must sign a liability release that states: “You May Be Seriously and Permanently Injured or Killed.” With merciless precision, Brodesser-Akner traces the arcing trajectory of doomed affections: the glorious takeoff, the deluded calm, the shrieking descent.
Much of the first section of the novel follows Toby’s frantic efforts to sleep with as many women as he can, while locking down a big promotion at the hospital and taking care of his children — a cursed schedule of overlapping demands. You see, Fleishman is in trouble. His estranged wife, Rachel, has stopped returning his calls. She’s no longer picking up the kids. Toby doesn’t even know where she is. It’s just her latest infuriatingly selfish stunt — or at least Toby would have us believe as he recalls one example after another of her chilliness, her lack of affection, her complete disregard for how much he does to keep their family humming.
So far, so John Updike. But there’s something wonderfully contrary going on here.
This entire story is told by Toby’s old friend, Libby Epstein. For large sections of the novel, though, she stays as hidden as a bird hunter in a field blind. So expansive and intimate is her knowledge of Toby’s experience — his conversations, his actions, even his thoughts — that it’s easy to imagine we’re hearing the voice of an omniscient narrator. It turns out that, like Brodesser-Akner herself, Libby used to be a writer for a men’s magazine, and she’s most comfortable expressing herself in expansive profiles of other people. The further we read into this tale of Toby’s marital discord, the more we realize that Libby is trying to work out something about her own existential plight.
That becomes more explicit in the novel’s final section. It’s not a revelation as dramatic as the second half of Lauren Groff’s “Fates and Furies,” but it shines a new light on the story of Toby and Rachel’s marriage. Libby’s sympathies — and ours — are suddenly unmoored in the conflicting currents of love and resentment. Perhaps Toby is not the long-suffering saint he imagines himself to be. But something bigger is happening here than just the dissolution of one wealthy couple. When Libby finally comes out from the margins of this story, she uses Rachel to offer a sustained reflection on the impossible pressures that talented women endure.
I haven’t felt this much energy sparking off a novel since Claire Messud’s “The Woman Upstairs.” Here, in one gut-punching paragraph after another, is the articulate fury of someone who once dared to imagine that her ambition could be expressed and appreciated. Only too late does Rachel realize that “her success made her poison.” She’s ripped apart by the old demands of full-time motherhood and the new requirements of full-time work and the sheer exhaustion of having to flatter and reassure and soothe all the fragile men in her life.
But Brodesser-Akner swings the sword full circle, slicing through the demeaning rules of the patriarchy just as effectively as she slays the fatuous optimism of that “girl-power” propaganda fed to modern girls. “If you are a smart woman,” Libby says, “you cannot stand by and remain sane once you fully understand, as a smart person does, the constraints of this world on a woman.”
Conveying the full tragedy of that predicament in a story that’s often blisteringly funny is the real triumph of this book. Few novels express so clearly that we’re all in trouble.
Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.
At 7 p.m. Thursday, Taffy Brodesser-Akner will be in conversation with CNN’s Jake Tapper at Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington.
Fleishman Is in Trouble
By Taffy Brodesser-Akner
Random House. 384 pp. $27