Deflating as it may be, I’m often drawn back to this, mystified. Can you ever really know the people you know so well, or predict the ways their true natures will unfold? What are we to do about this terribly significant business of other people? “Fleishman is in Trouble,” this summer’s hit novel (and future TV series) by the celebrated profile writer Taffy Brodesser-Akner, left me flattened, too, for much the same reason. Is divorce, Brodesser-Akner seems to ask, always a function of getting other people wrong; of inevitably missing a million crucial things about them?
On the surface, the finely observed, inhalable debut novel is about Toby Fleishman, a 41-year-old Manhattan hepatologist and father of tweenagers finally getting his life back after divorcing his maternally resentful, social-climbing talent agent wife Rachel. But just as he’s exploring a brave new world of dating app sexts and wildly available bedfellows, Rachel drops off the kids, heads to a yoga retreat and goes missing for weeks.
The real story of what happens to Rachel — and that of Rachel, herself — is likewise MIA for most of the book, as this is a book about a man, and all the grievances and slights he’s finally empowered to combat. Brodesser-Akner, who’s drawn comparisons to Roth for the novel’s lust and neuroses and super-specific American Jewishness (and who’s professed her die-hard love for the writer), employs her own Zuckermanesque alter ego, Libby Epstein, to narrate the summer of sexual freedom of her old study abroad pal, Toby. Where Nathan is wholly present in the beginning of “Pastoral” and then retreats in later chapters to the role of omniscient narrator, Libby does the opposite, first piping up intermittently in service of examining Toby’s life; and then revealing herself to be a singular character who’s really examining her own.
The novel has drawn raves and sparked thoughtful conversations about where women fit into a male-centric narrative — and whether that’s only after they’ve managed to wedge themselves in. Libby lost touch with Toby after he got married, but the divorce finds him seeking to reconnect with old friends, spurring out-of-the-blue calls to her and their mutual friend, Seth. Libby’s happy to have been gifted a portal to her freewheeling youth, as adulthood has consistently made her feel sidelined — first as an under-considered female writer at a men’s magazine, and now as a suburban mom and housewife in New Jersey. (Broddeser-Akner also had an illustrious career at a men’s magazine, GQ; and like Libby, grew up in Brooklyn and went to NYU and studied abroad in Israel and is a mom of two in New Jersey and has never quite kicked her smoking habit; and Roth really did grow up with a guy called “the Swede,” but I digress.) Her domesticated existence resembles everyone else’s in her neighborhood, making her feel unspecial, unseen; and the middle-aged phase of marriage has left her disillusioned. “At some point, I didn’t remember when, I had taken all my freedom and independence, and pushed them across the poker table at [my husband] Adam and said, ‘Here, take my jackpot. Take it all. I don’t need it anymore. I won’t miss it ever.’ ”
When Libby re-connects with newly single Toby, she asks him, “Why haven’t you been in touch?” And he responds, seemingly to a different question: “We would fight in public. It was too embarrassing. She just didn’t care who she started in front of.” Wait, was he even listening? And had he ever been? By the time Libby realizes that Toby’s clear and present needs had always been the throughline of their friendship — “I’m a real person with a soul and I could use a friend, too,” she says to a dating app-immersed Toby — it’s too late in their friendship to shake up the dynamic. “What possible need could you have?” he asks back.
So Libby tells her own story. As does Brodesser-Akner: While the author herself is happily married — even as, she’s joked, saying so indicates the opposite — she’s revealed that her parents’ divorce left her obsessed with the topic and in need of a way to delve in. Hence, the novel. Other details in the book are ripped straight from Brodesser-Akner’s own life (if you’re a fan, as I am, you’ve seen them pop up in personal essays), helping underscore the way being a woman can feel like the rawest of deals. By the time Karen Cooper, Toby’s patient, is diagnosed with Wilson’s disease, a rare liver affliction, she’d had her symptoms dismissed by an internist as depression, and sent away with a prescription for Zoloft. Brodesser-Akner has written of this very thing happening to her, of being repeatedly told her exhaustion was depression, until her doctor “begrudgingly” did bloodwork and discovered she had mono. She knows plenty of other women, she’s written, “who’ve been dismissed by their doctors for being lazy and careless and . . . downright crazy.” For Karen, whose disease could have been easily diagnosed from the early onset symptom of copper-colored rings around her irises, Brodesser-Akner told a book tour crowd in D.C., “I liked the idea — it’s kind of a hint — that if anybody had been looking her in the eye, they would have known about this long before it ever happened.” How invisible can a person be?
In the last act, the novel finally shifts to Rachel’s story. In a twist that’s delighted readers, Libby runs into Rachel — who appears to have been willfully neglecting her kids, thus validating Toby’s every condemnation of her — only to discover she’s had a nervous breakdown. By this point, the female characters have learned that being a woman can feel like an affront — even for Toby and Rachel’s 11-year-old daughter, Hannah, who gets kicked out of camp for texting a racy photo to a boy, who then sent it to everyone he knew. Yet Rachel’s story feels singularly harrowing. Some combination of her brutal childhood and brutal experience of childbirth and her manic efforts to overcome both, finally broke her; and she’s lost weeks of sleep and all sense of time, and is roaming the city sporting sweatpants, eye bags, a chop-job pixie cut she doesn’t remember getting, and a stark swipe of red lipstick, the armor she’s worn since college.
Toby’s not a bad guy; and Brodesser-Akner never leads us there. But, she suggests, when you’re stuck, tightfisted, inside your own story — unable to imagine that how you experience others is really how you experience yourself — the most unknowable person may be you, after all. “The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway,” Roth wrote. “Maybe the best thing would be to forget being right or wrong about people and just go along for the ride. But if you can do that — well, lucky you.”
Rachel Rosenblit is a freelance writer and editor in New York.