Marriage Is a Mess in ‘Fleishman Is in Trouble’

By Taffy Brodesser-Akner

Great novels warned you: Marriage is a mess.

Madame Bovary despised her stifling union. The dreary husband in “Middlemarch” nearly ruined Dorothea Brooke. And as soon as Anna Karenina tumbled into the wrong bed, she fell from society, and leapt onto train tracks. In 20th-century fiction, wedding bells tolled as forbiddingly, with a plethora of disgruntled husbands yearning to ditch capitalist conformity and hit the road. But wedlock was a lock. Which demoted many a protagonist’s wife to the role of shackle.

In her witty and well-observed debut, “Fleishman Is in Trouble,” Taffy Brodesser-Akner updates the miserable-matrimony novel, dropping it squarely in our times, where a husband complains that his wife sees him as “a blinking cursor awaiting her instructions,” and extramarital affairs involve emojis. The most significant adjustment, however, is to focus on the left-behind spouse, and to make it the husband.

Toby Fleishman, 41, is a doctor at a major New York hospital, which counts as a pitifully low-income job to his wife’s friends. In this milieu, a house in the Hamptons is mandatory, kids are with the nanny or at Mandarin lessons and parents do spot-checks on the appalling things their little ones just posted on Instagram.

After 14 years of marriage, Toby is splitting from Rachel, a successful talent agent whom he finds unloving. He nurtures their kids while she gets the soaring career, flouncing through their home “like a special guest star,” as Toby complains to a divorce lawyer, noting that Rachel is also the big earner. Yes, the lawyer tells Toby, “You’re the wife.”

[ This book was one of our most anticipated titles of June. See the full list. ]

Newly single, he is gripped by his phone, which pings with texts of cleavage and crotches from middle-aged women found on the kind of dating app where the dating is perfunctory at best. One day, Rachel deposits the kids at his place, and vanishes. Abruptly, he’s a single parent. Toby struggles to cope at work while also trying to protect his 9-year-old, the solemn Solly, along with 11-year-old Hannah, who is smart but scathing — “becoming, it seemed to him, the kind of girl that it was completely exhausting to be.”

[ “Three years ago, as I looked into the future and saw the arc of my marriage shaped like a rainbow and not like a lightning bolt,” Brodesser-Akner wrote in a recent essay. “I pulled up a Word document and got to work on a novel.” ]

Trouble isn’t limited to Fleishman. Almost everyone over 40 is in the soup. The novel’s narrator, Libby, befriended Toby two decades earlier, when they were on a college year abroad in Israel. She ended up as a journalist (whose résumé bears a passing resemblance to that of Brodesser-Akner, a staff writer for The New York Times Magazine). But Libby has transitioned to stay-at-home motherhood, married to a steady fella who can’t grasp her panic over New Jersey suburbia. “It’s the order of things,” he explains, patting her head. “Now we focus on the kids. We mellow with age. It’s how it goes. It’s not our turn anymore.” She sobs.

Another friend of Toby and Libby is the ever-partying financier Seth, who offers a third iteration of midlife malaise. He’s safely single, enjoying rampant sex and drugs and video games. But Seth lacks human connections; he’s lonely.

Meantime, nobody knows the trouble Rachel has seen. In past novels, the runaway spouse might have been a sympathetic cad. Rachel, in her husband’s telling, is just a nightmare. Yet this cleverly paced novel doesn’t leave her story at that.

Brodesser-Akner has written a potent, upsetting and satisfying novel, illustrating how the marital pledge — build our life together — overlooks a key fact: There are two lives. And time isn’t a sharer. You cook dinner, or I do. In marriage, your closest ally may end up your nearest rival. “You complete me” is an awful lot of pressure.

Tom Rachman’s latest novel is “The Italian Teacher.”

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