You’ll be hearing a lot about Fleishman Is in Trouble this year. Early reviews are nearly ecstatic. And why not? It’s a terrific novel, sharply funny and brilliantly observed.
It’s the story of Toby Fleishman, an Upper East Side hepatologist (think liver expert at a prestigious New York hospital) who is in the midst of a bitter divorce after a 14-plus-year marriage to his wife, Rachel, a driven, incredibly successful owner of a high-end talent agency. She runs with a crowd that earns so much more than Toby’s mere quarter-million dollars a year that they basically view him as a pauper. It’s Toby who has sued for divorce.
In one of the comedic, thought-provoking reversals this novel deploys so adroitly, Toby is the primary caregiver for their two children—Hannah, age 11, and Solly, age 9. During the summer weeks when this story unfolds, the couple has the customary child-sharing arrangement: Toby will take these days and Rachel the others. But Rachel suddenly disappears and is nowhere to be found. Toby is left in the role of full-time caregiver just when the possibility of career advancement and his dating life as a 40-something divorced man are taking off. How then to respond to a conflict between responsible parenthood, the demands of career and the allure of the sexually charged online dating scene?
In exploring Toby’s dilemma, Brodesser-Akner doesn’t miss the opportunity to examine the state of contemporary divorce and the weird culture of post-divorce dating.
“When I turned 40,” she explains, “a critical mass of my friends started telling me they were getting a divorce. I was shocked. They would tell me about how their marriages failed, but I was most interested in what their lives were like now. They showed me their phones and how they were dating. It was different from how we were dating right after college.”
She tried to interest a magazine she was writing for at the time, but the idea didn’t appeal to her male editors. So she “sat down and started writing it. A force overtook me. The thing I do mostly is write profiles. I just thought of it as a longer profile.”
The story bloomed, and part of it was the titillating content of her divorcing friends’ phones. “I couldn’t believe how wild it was. How free everyone was. No one was coy. No one was flirtatious. They just went for it. I wanted to tell the story of what it is like now.”
In writing about this modern phenomenon, Brodesser-Akner calls herself a “bit of a prude.” But even in her fictional realm, she’s a reporter interested in the underlying facts—so much so that she took the unusual step of hiring a fact-checker to ensure that her depictions were accurate.
“I’ve done very well in my writing career by being as specific as possible and never being vague,” she says. “Half of the things [the fact-checker] found were amazing, and half were embarrassing—like why are they taking a cab to the 92nd Street Y if they live on 94th Street? That was worth all the money I paid for it. I’m about accuracy and not looking like an idiot.”
Her characters, however, can often seem like idiots, although very successful and mostly lovable idiots we grow to care about. She writes about her characters with empathy but also with the cutting, acerbic wit that became her signature style at GQ and in her current position as staff writer at the New York Times.
“It’s a characteristic that people don’t always enjoy in me as a person,” she admits, “but they do like it in me as a writer. I wasn’t tremendously popular in life growing up until I became a writer, at which point people started to seek me out more. It’s interesting to me that the things that make some people like you are the same things that alienate others.”
While often laugh-out-loud funny, the novel also intimately probes issues of contemporary life, such as social and sexual inequity. We are very sympathetic to Fleishman, who is in trouble. But we’re eventually led to wonder, isn’t Rachel, the missing parent, also in trouble?
“My husband always says that when you’re a hammer, everything is a nail,” Brodesser-Akner says. “Around the time I was writing this, I was suddenly aware of a lot of inequity. I felt very loved and treasured [at my job], but then I would get wind of certain salaries, and I would see how different it was for my husband. I grew up in a house with a single mother with lots of limits that looked like gender limits. So when you wake up to it, it’s all you can see. It was important for me to write a book that was relevant, modern and that showed that suddenly the world [can be] just completely different from what you’d pinned your hopes on.”
Perhaps most surprising of all is that Brodesser-Akner says this engrossing novel took her just six months to write. “I’m a freelancer, my time is very valuable, and we have a mortgage to pay. I couldn’t take more time than that because I needed to see if this was worth it.”
Obviously, it was.
Author photo by Erik Tanner