Review: Novel dissects divorce with sharp, funny scalpel

“Fleishman Is in Trouble” (Random House), by Taffy Brodesser-Akner

There was once a time when becoming a doctor or marrying one was an ideal measure of success. But “Fleishman Is in Trouble,” the new novel by Taffy Brodesser-Akner, rejects that antiquated notion and several other tired societal tropes, shining a light on how we view work, relationships and material things.

Toby Fleishman, a Manhattan doctor and father of two, is in the middle of a painful divorce and finds the best medicine is swiping right on Tinder to ease his pain. The plot takes place over just a few weeks, but the story of how his 14-year marriage to Rachel devolved into an angry, bitter mess comes in flashbacks of how the couple met, fell in love and built a life together.

An old friend of Toby’s serves as the narrator and judge, coloring the story with her own insecurities and marital itchiness. The first part of the book reveals Toby’s side of things, and while he paints himself as a martyr who took a back seat in his career as a liver specialist to play Mr. Mom, it’s clear his self-pity, fear of failure and disappointment in the way his life has turned out contributed to the disintegration of the family.

In Toby’s version, Rachel is the easy villain — obsessed with money and status — who rose from assistant to superagent to the stars, working long hours, networking for social and professional gain, and becoming the breadwinner while growing increasingly powerful and financially successful.

The seeds of resentment are sown as Toby feels increasingly inadequate and Rachel’s busy schedule and pressure to keep up with the elite banker crowd pushes her to the point of a breakdown. Rachel gets her say in the last part of the book, and we see where she got her drive, how specific life events devastated her and made her feel like no one — including Toby — had her back.

Brodesser-Akner is a journalist best known for her in-depth celebrity interviews, including a New York Times magazine cover story on Gwyneth Paltrow and Goop that got attention for its incisive reporting and humor. The author’s sharp wit and descriptions of a certain urban privileged life are dead-on and often hilarious. The novel feels fresh and modern with a satirical edge, but enough truth to sting even the schmoopiest of married couples.

She describes how parenting and work exhaustion, bitterness and dreams unrealized strip the desire out of sex until it becomes a chore. All the mid-life crises symptoms are here: from tawdry affairs to Botox boosts, yoga retreats and the politics of navigating dating app hookups. Stay-at-home moms won’t like her assertion that they have it easier than working mothers, who are, after all, juggling two jobs.

There’s a plot twist that drives the narrative, but it’s the way that Brodesser-Akner manages to notice both the minutiae of relationships that universally drives people crazy as well as a macro picture of how being married feels after 15 years that anchor the book. Both Toby and Rachel get caught up in her drive for the house in the Hamptons, private schools and invitations to exclusive playdates, clouding their values and breaking promises they made to each other long ago.

One overall message is that holding onto the routine of staying “busy” — overscheduling, rushing, competing and social media posting — often results in feelings of loneliness, inadequacy and a lack of connection.

Toby Fleishman isn’t the only one in trouble. Infusing candor, humor and social commentary, this book holds up a mirror to all of us, demanding that we take a hard look at how we live and how we love.

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