There’s a masterful move that Taffy Brodesser-Anker does with her debut novel Fleishman Is In Trouble, and it happens deep within the text. Three-hundred pages in, what was once an obvious theme dissolves into a completely antithetical one yet somehow allows the first theme to ring just as true: it never negates anything that comes before it. It’s that shift that makes Fleishman Is In Trouble an excellent read.
Fleishman Is In Trouble concerns itself primarily with the forty-something New Yorker Dr. Toby Fleishman, recently divorced, awfully self-concerned, disparagingly parental. Fleishman now finds himself suddenly attractive thanks to a dating app, but none of that stops him from constantly watching what he eats and worrying any less about his small stature. He has two kids and one ex-wife. He’s reached the “now what?” point in life, especially now that he seems to be thrust into being a single parent. Luckily, he still has two close friends: college pals Seth and Libby.
It’s old friend Libby that actually narrates the novel which doesn’t become clear for several pages, another literary point-of-view trick of Brodesser-Anker that moves the novel from being an ordinary look at midlife to something deeper; it’s also a trick that pays dividends later.
The narrative does sag at times with repetition. Once Toby Fleishman does something, particularly a mistake in his thinking about the women that he’s seeing, he tends to do it again and again. It’s reminiscent of Don Draper in Mad Men, another example of a man in crisis who continues to make the same mistakes. Once the story reaches its final third, though, some of the redundancy is forgivable. Brodesser-Anker uses some marital archetypes to bring something bigger into focus. (It’s actually no surprise that the book is already in works to become a limited FX series as it has a bit of an episodic structure with some of its reveals.)
Fleishman Is In Trouble is fast paced and well written, which is a lot of what I ask for out of a piece of fiction. The author paints each character realistically. These people are archetypes of those you know and see — or maybe they’re you. Despite its extra weight — there mostly for a reason — the book concludes nicely a couple of reflections and images that should leave readers examining their own lives.
That’s one sign of a great novel, perhaps Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s best move of all.