It’s easy to understand why Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s Fleishman Is in Trouble has been the “It” novel of the summer. A treasure chest of amusing signifiers of the haute professional class as well as the restless denizens of the Tinder world, it mocks affluent Manhattan pretensions even while embracing that group’s anxieties, especially those swirling around marriage and gender. The novel “revolves around one major concern,” as one Vox writer explains:
Is it possible in our culture, given its gender norms, for a woman to outstrip her husband in ambition and wealth and career and for everyone involved to be okay with it? Or is it that women [are] always going to be trapped under the weight of everyone else’s expectations?
Worthy questions, I suppose, but they miss the deeper issues raised, perhaps unintentionally, by this wittily entertaining writer. What are the ambitions promoted by “our culture” and now pursued so avidly by women? Are these ambitions that lead to well-being? Do they make women —and men and children—happy?
The hero of Fleishman is in Trouble is 41-year-old Toby Fleishman, a heptologist at a Manhattan hospital recently separated from his wife, Rachel, who is a fabulously successful, glamorous talent agent with her own successful firm. As told by Toby via an old college friend Liz (or Libby or Elizabeth; like many women of her class, Liz has identity issues), Rachel has achieved her success through the overtime efforts of her child-centered husband, who would leave work at 5 in order to relieve the babysitter. He was the parent the school called when one of the children spiked a fever, the one who arranged for summer camps, orthodontist appointments, music lessons, and all of the other essential nourishments of upper middle-class child development, to smooth the way for his wife to achieve her dreams. This aspiring father-of-the-year even spends time searching out new recipes for his family to enjoy. He does the cooking, too, of course.
As tends to happen in modern marriage novels, the arrangement makes everyone miserable. As the story opens, Rachel has disappeared without any warning to a yoga retreat, leaving her 11-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son unannounced and asleep in her almost ex-husband’s apartment. In Toby’s eyes, her behavior is entirely in character. Rachel brings the uncompromising work habits that have led to her success in her cutthroat business home with her. She yells, manipulates, mocks, and sneers (“she went for his masculinity like it was an artery”). She is icily voracious in the bedroom, while remaining otherwise uninterested in her husband and, apparently, her children.
It is Toby’s idea to end the marriage and, indeed, he finds many advantages in his new status as a Manhattan bachelor. Though a Princeton grad and a successful M.D., Toby can’t fully escape his childhood self-image as an overweight, Jewish nebbish. Only five foot five inches tall—the author never lets us forget this crucial fact about our hero—he has slimmed down by rigorously disciplining his diet. Now a free man, he is besieged on dating apps by legions of horny, cleavage-baring women who once would have been merely the object of his persistent masturbation fantasies.
Brodesser-Akner gives Toby center stage at first, but as she slowly brings Liz’s own voice into the narrative, she drops hints that maybe we shouldn’t take him at his own word. Liz begins to notice her friend’s self-involvement, and it unleashes memories of her own career disappointments and a litany of familiar accusations against men. “When you succeed, when you did out-earn and outpace, when you did exceed all expectations, nothing around you really shifted. You still had to tiptoe around the fragility of a man,” she complains. Women don’t stand a chance in her view: “If you are a smart woman, you cannot stand by and remain sane once you fully understand, as a smart person does, the constraints of this world on a woman.” Once Rachel appears to tell her side of the story, Toby becomes a voodoo doll for female resentment, just another entitled white dude oblivious to women’s pain. And so it is that Fleishman Is in Trouble turns into what Washington Post reviewer Ron Charles calls a “feminist jeremiad nested inside a brilliant comic novel.”
The problem is that the jeremiad is not comfortable in its nest. In fact, the women’s complaints are at war with Brodesser-Akner’s comic novel. The author seems to forget that while Toby may be an egotistical bore at times, his wife is what might be politely called “a piece of work.” A social climber extraordinaire, she believes her husband suffers from an “embarrassing disability which was that he was a successful doctor at a top-ranked New York hospital,” meaning, he is a loser. She tries to change that: she dresses him “to look like a rich person,” she has a friend (who will soon become her lover) offer him a million-dollar a year job that she knows he would hate, and she pouts when he turns it down. She drives herself to a nervous breakdown in a cutthroat job whose main purpose is to pursue her hollow, unexamined life: the language tutors, country clubs, art consultants, a 5-bedroom house in the Hamptons with a den, solarium, and deck overlooking the ocean, and ever larger apartments in ever fancier buildings. She convinces herself that this is all for her children and their father. But although Toby surely appreciates some of the finer things, there is little evidence he craves the prestige addresses she does.
What’s telling about our current cultural moment is that Rachel’s shallow, snobbish status obsessions didn’t attract any attention from the book’s many reviewers; it’s as if those obsessions are so obviously acceptable that they don't notice their corrupting effect. Instead, they endorsed the novel’s supposed depiction of “the impossible pressures that talented women endure,” in Ron Charles’ words.
It’s hard to say where the author stands on all this. Does she believe men’s putatively sordid treatment of women explains very much about her characters (as many of her readers seemed to believe)? What are we supposed to make of Rachel’s eager competition in the soul-destroying rat race that corrupts everyone around her, husband and children included? Do we cheer “You Go Girl!” even when the girl’s ambition is to collect luxury brands?
It’s true that women face particularly painful tradeoffs and colliding desires that men never will: it’s impossible to imagine a world where this will not be the case. But the life disappointment of those who climb their way to the top is not a gender story. Masters of the Universe, male and female, will suffer missed opportunities, broken trusts, unfulfilled hopes, petty competitions, and dashed illusions in their scramble to the top. Brodesser-Akner calls the final section of her book “Rachel Fleishman is in trouble.” But Rachel's trouble is not male malfeasance; it’s her fixation on that great condo in the sky.
This piece originally appeared in the Institute for Family Studies
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