July 23, 2019

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Split decision

Brodesser-Akner's clever debut fiction mulls divorce — with a twist

In the first few months after separating from his wife, the eponymous hero of Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s first novel wakes up every morning with one thought in his head: “Something is wrong. There is trouble. I am in trouble. It had been he who asked for the divorce, and still: something is wrong. There is trouble. I am in trouble.”

Toby Fleishman’s problems get worse when his soon-to-be ex-wife, Rachel, drops the kids off for the weekend and then disappears.

There’s plenty of trouble to go around in this novel; it doesn’t all belong to Toby. Lots of it belongs to his children, preteen Hannah and nine-year-old Solly, who are suffering from the emotional whiplash that’s a natural consequence of the crash-and-burn of their parents’ marriage. Lots of it belongs to his friends, who inexpertly carry Toby’s burdens along with their own. And lots of it — half? Do these things really divide down the middle? — belongs to Rachel, whose own side of the story doesn’t come to light until Toby’s gasped out his last refrains in Fleishman is in Trouble.

Brodesser-Akner is a New York journalist who made her career writing genre-upending celebrity profiles for GQ. Even though she begins each profile with a microscope trained on her glossy subject, it inevitably swivels to peer at Brodesser-Akner’s own idiosyncrasies and vulnerabilities. These days, Brodesser-Akner writes for The New York Times Magazine (notable features include her profile of Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop empire and her deep dive into Weight Watchers culture).

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In the first few months after separating from his wife, the eponymous hero of Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s first novel wakes up every morning with one thought in his head: "Something is wrong. There is trouble. I am in trouble. It had been he who asked for the divorce, and still: something is wrong. There is trouble. I am in trouble."

Toby Fleishman’s problems get worse when his soon-to-be ex-wife, Rachel, drops the kids off for the weekend and then disappears.

Eric Tanner photo</p><p>In her debut novel, author Taffy Brodesser-Akner isn’t arguing that divorce is wrong; she’s exploring its effects.</p>

Eric Tanner photo

In her debut novel, author Taffy Brodesser-Akner isn’t arguing that divorce is wrong; she’s exploring its effects.

There’s plenty of trouble to go around in this novel; it doesn’t all belong to Toby. Lots of it belongs to his children, preteen Hannah and nine-year-old Solly, who are suffering from the emotional whiplash that’s a natural consequence of the crash-and-burn of their parents’ marriage. Lots of it belongs to his friends, who inexpertly carry Toby’s burdens along with their own. And lots of it — half? Do these things really divide down the middle? — belongs to Rachel, whose own side of the story doesn’t come to light until Toby’s gasped out his last refrains in Fleishman is in Trouble.

Brodesser-Akner is a New York journalist who made her career writing genre-upending celebrity profiles for GQ. Even though she begins each profile with a microscope trained on her glossy subject, it inevitably swivels to peer at Brodesser-Akner’s own idiosyncrasies and vulnerabilities. These days, Brodesser-Akner writes for The New York Times Magazine (notable features include her profile of Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop empire and her deep dive into Weight Watchers culture).

She pulls off the pivot to fiction with a clever device: the novel’s narrator, a close friend of Fleishman’s, is a fictionalized version of Brodesser-Akner herself — she’s a writer struggling with the demands of career and motherhood, full of impatience and love for her friend. She’s a journalist with an all-access pass into Toby’s story and tells it just as though he were as inherently fascinating to readers as Bradley Cooper or Tonya Harding.

So here we are: Toby and Rachel Fleishman are getting divorced. This is the kind of news everyone is used to hearing. To outsiders, a divorce is grounds for gossip, maybe a little sympathy, or maybe just bald curiosity. For the couple, it’s world-rending. For the couple’s children, it’s maybe world-ending, for a while, or forever. There are beginnings here, too, particularly of the sexual kind — Toby’s feeling of "I’m in trouble" is easily drowned out by his constantly pinging dating apps. But his greedy sexual explorations feel one-part grotesque, one-part pathetic to the reader, and they highlight his loneliness. Brodesser-Akner isn’t arguing that divorce is wrong; she’s exploring its effects.

In an essay for the New York Times, Brodesser-Akner writes that her parents’ divorce when she was a child had a lifelong effect: "The sadness is always there, I told him. It’s never going away," she writes. "It is not resolved, just shoved into the background."

So, yes, Fleishman is in Trouble is about divorce, and nothing about that is easy. But when Brodesser-Akner gets around to Rachel’s perspective — trust her, there’s a reason for the delay — the focus twists away from Toby’s loneliness and pinions a very female problem.

Ambition in men reads as something altogether different than ambition in women, and the latter can seem all but incompatible with a traditional approach to marriage and motherhood. The world is forgiving of one kind of ambition, but not the other; it’s willing to listen to one side of the story, but not the other.

Fleishman’s narrator, before she goes in search of Rachel’s story, puts it best:

"This was the only way to get someone to listen to a woman — to tell her story through a man; Trojan horse yourself into a man and people would give a s—- about you… But sitting there, I realized my problems were now different. They could no longer be grafted onto a man because they were so unique to the problem of being a woman."

There is too much that is difficult and splendid in Fleishman is in Trouble to express in one review. Read a few reviews, and then read the novel, but you may as well leave your confirmation bias at the door: when it comes to marriage and divorce, Brodesser-Akner is here to tell you there are at least two sides to every story.

Julienne Isaacs is a Winnipeg writer.

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