Book Review: Chemistry

Chemistry tells the story of an unnamed protagonist whose life, from a distance, would appear to be going really well: she is a Ph.D. student in a prestigious chemistry program, and her longterm boyfriend (who is also a chemist) has proposed to her. But her laboratory experiments aren’t going well and she doesn’t feel ready for marriage. All of this pressure – plus the pressure her parents have placed on her from an early age to succeed – causes the protagonist to panic and break down, and then to reevaluate her life as she slowly picks herself back up.

The book: Chemistry by Weike Wang
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5

Chemistry was such an immersive and wonderfully emotional read. Wang’s unnamed protagonist is so well-developed that I really felt her pain of feeling inadequate and lost in life. At the same time, I found it frustrating and distressing to watch the narrator make one questionable decision after another – I so badly wanted her to make different choices and take better care of herself! The way the protagonist simultaneously evoked frustration and tenderness in me is a testament to Wang’s razor-sharp writing.

I also really enjoyed the writing style and structure in Chemistry. The story is told as a somewhat disjointed collection of the narrator’s thoughts, experiences, and memories. While this might sound like a disorganized or chaotic reading experience, there is a remarkable consistency and flow to the narrator’s voice. The result is that all of the story’s fragments come together beautifully to illustrate a wonderfully complex and compelling character.

On the topic of the novel’s structure, I also want to mention that it doesn’t follow a typical narrative arc. Chemistry‘s protagonist slowly breaks down and (even more slowly) tries to find herself and, just as journeys of self-discovery go in real-life, there is no perfect resolution to her journey. The end of this book actually snuck up on me because of that; I had naively assumed that the story would resolve conclusively, and wasn’t expecting it to end in the somewhat anticlimactic way that it did. While anticlimactic, though, the way the story wrapped up was also hopeful and realistic.

In addition to being evocative and compelling, Chemistry is also full of fantastic commentary. Wang touches upon the insane demands of graduate school that inevitably lead people to break down, as well as the unique challenges faced by first-generation Asian Americans. While all of the commentary was excellent, I was particularly touched by Wang’s portrayal of being caught in between two different cultures – one individualistic and one more community-focused – and feeling like you don’t quite belong to either of them.

Note: I live in the greater Boston area, so the next paragraph is very much influenced by my personal biases.

My only critique of Chemistry is that I wanted more from the setting! Wang sets the novel in Boston, but aside from mentioning a few Boston landmarks (and I use the word mentioning very intentionally; she does not describe these landmarks in much detail, not even the Arnold Arboretum in the Fall), there is not much that gives the story a distinct setting. And yet…I have to acknowledge that despite the lacking setting, I still found Chemistry to be a completely captivating read because the narrator’s internal experience was so immersive.

Overall, I loved and highly recommend Chemistry. There were so many things about this novel that don’t normally work for me, but the novel was SO well-written and the protagonist so realistically compelling, that I found myself completely immersed in the story. I tend not to reread books, but I would reread this one for the experience of feeling so absorbed in the main character’s mind.

Book Review: The Death of Vivek Oji

The Death of Vivek Oji opens with the title character’s corpse being dropped off on his mother’s doorstep in Nigeria. The story that follows is a non-linear exploration of Vivek’s life leading up to his death, and the impact of his death on his friends and family.

The book: The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi
Genre: Fiction
Rating: 4 stars out of 5

I started The Death of Vivek Oji with lukewarm feelings, but the book grew on me over time. One aspect of the book that initially underwhelmed me was the writing. Perhaps the breathtakingly beautiful, lyrical prose of Freshwater (Emezi’s debut novel) unfairly heightened my expectations, but I felt that the writing in this novel (especially the dialogue) left a lot to be desired. As I read on and let go of my expectations, however, I found things to appreciate about the writing: there were some beautifully evocative passages that pulled at my heartstrings, and Emezi’s infusion of Igbo language into the dialogue helped to keep me immersed in the setting of Nigeria.

The novel’s structure is another area that I disliked at first but came to appreciate. At first, I felt like the book’s focus on many characters’ perspectives came at a detriment to nuanced development of any individual character. But the benefit to having so many different main characters is revealed when their stories come together to paint a beautifully complex portrait of the title character, Vivek, and of Nigerian society as a whole. While I do still think that a couple of the side stories could have been omitted, I loved the way Emezi weaved disparate narrative threads together to reveal a powerful bigger picture.

On the note of threads being woven together, I loved this novel’s imagery and symbolism. There were many references to plaiting (i.e. braiding) throughout the novel, which I appreciated given the novel’s braid-like narrative structure. I also really liked the theme of pictures: the novel opens and ends with references to photographs, and pictures end up playing an important role in the novel’s plot.

And speaking of the plot, I found the story itself to be compelling. The novel opens with Vivek’s corpse being dropped off at his parents’ house, so it is no secret that he is going to die, but the circumstances surrounding his death are unknown. As the novel progresses and the pieces of the story come together, Emezi drops hints and signs about how Vivek is going to die, but they keep the true story behind his death a mystery until the very end. For me, Emezi’s storytelling successfully built intrigue, dread, and suspense – which is definitely what I want from a novel with mystery elements.

Overall, I enjoyed and would recommend The Death of Vivek Oji. While I had some issues with the dialogue and character development, I feel that Emezi’s conclusion to the novel made the entire read worth it. And to those who read and loved Freshwater, just keep in mind that this is a very different novel!

Book Review: Such A Fun Age

Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age opens with Emira Tucker, a 25-year-old black woman, being called to babysit for the white Chamberlain family during a late-night crisis. Emira takes the Chamberlains’ older daughter, Briar, to the supermarket to distract her from the commotion at home, when she is accused by the store’s security guard of kidnapping the white toddler. After the incident is resolved, two white people in Emira’s life – her employer Alix Chamberlain, and a customer named Kelley who witnessed and videotaped the racist supermarket incident – take it upon themselves to help Emira in whatever way they can.

The book: Such A Fun Age by Kiley Reid
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Rating: 4 stars out of 5

I had a great time reading Such a Fun Age. The novel is fast-paced and highly readable, with riveting scenes that engrossed me in the way that a TV drama would. I thought the characters were compelling, too; although they weren’t always relatable, I found them complex and believable.

Where Such a Fun Age excels the most to me, though, is in the social commentary and criticism that is packed throughout the story. The book features two well-intentioned white characters (Alix and Kelley) who claim they want to help Emira – yet they both repeatedly subject her to microaggressions, and manipulate her in their attempts to help. By portraying Alix and Kelley as simultaneously well-intentioned and harmful, Reid brilliantly illustrates the concept that good intentions can still be problematic and have damaging effects. Through Alix and Kelley’s actions, Reid also demonstrates how white people can recognize others’ actions as racist, yet fail to see their own racism.

Spoilers in the next paragraph – read at your own risk!

My main complaint about Such a Fun Age is that the drama feels heavy-handed at times. One of the major plot drivers is an unrealistic coincidence where two high-school enemies are reunited as adults when one shows up as a plus-one at the other’s extravagant Thanksgiving party. The novel also ends somewhat abruptly with a dramatic blowout that is being televised in realtime for the local news. These excessively dramatic scenes were only a minor problem for me, though. Drama isn’t inherently bad (in fact, sometimes it’s really entertaining – that’s why soap operas are a thing!), and the over-the-top scenes effectively heightened characters’ inner conflicts and interpersonal tensions.

Ultimately, I really enjoyed Such a Fun Age. I found the novel addictively compelling, and the characters realistically complex. I also appreciated the novel’s blend of entertaining drama and thought-provoking social commentary. I would recommend this book, with the caveat to also read some of the more critical reviews if you’re unsure.

Book Review: Bunny

Bunny is a genre-bending novel about an MFA student, Samantha, who feels very much like an outsider to the rest of her fiction-writing cohort. The other girls in the cohort are cliquey, rich, and cutesy, and they refer to each other as “Bunny” – all of which repulses Samantha. But when the Bunnies invite Samantha to their “Smut Salon,” Samantha finds herself inexplicably drawn to their precious world. Behind the Bunnies’ charm, however, there is a sinister darkness; and as Samantha becomes increasingly involved with the Bunnies, she begins to lose herself.

The book: Bunny by Mona Awad
Genre: Contemporary fiction/satire/horror
Rating: 4 stars out of 5

The best description of Bunny that I can give is Heathers meets Alice in Wonderland meets Frankenstein meets Stephen King. It’s a very disorienting story that takes several unexpected twists and turns, with some revelations that completely reframe the entire narrative. Because the novel is intentionally disorienting, a lot of things are up to interpretation – I finished Bunny a few days ago and am still bouncing between different potential interpretations of certain scenes. This type of novel won’t be for everyone, but I personally enjoyed it.

A major reason why Bunny worked so much for me is because the writing is hilariously self-aware. My favorite example of this is a scene where one of the Bunnies criticizes her fellow classmate’s story for being too vague, exclaiming: Um, what the fuck is this please? This makes no sense. This is coy and this is willfully obscure and no one but [the author] will ever get this…TELL ME WHAT HAPPENED. TELL ME WHAT THE FUCK THIS MEANS.” This could be said of Bunny itself, and I love that Awad acknowledged that. Awad also gently makes fun of the self-importance of graduate students, the weird dynamics of female friend groups, and the way that millennials give ridiculously exaggerated compliments. I felt so seen and so hilariously called out.

I also enjoyed Bunny‘s genre-bending nature. Awad takes on horror, satire, humor, psychological explorations, and more – and she does it all with skill and self-awareness. There are moments where the prose borders on pretentious, but I thought the hints of pretentiousness were perfect for a story narrated by a grad student in a prestigious MFA program.

Bunny was infinitely weirder than I had expected, but I really enjoyed it. If you’re okay with “WTF-just-happened” stories, I highly recommend this book. And I recommend going in with as few expectations as possible, to really let the story take you on its wild ride.

Book Review: The Bridge of Little Jeremy

12-year-old Jeremy is an aspiring artist in Paris with a genetic heart condition. Finances have always been tight for Jeremy and his mother, but when the family is unexpectedly hit with a hefty inheritance tax, Jeremy’s mother ends up in serious debt. So Jeremy does what any teenage boy in his situation would: he uses his artistic talent to earn money and save his mother from her debts.

The book: The Bridge of Little Jeremy by Indrajit Garai
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Rating: DNF

Even though I didn’t finish this novel, I will provide my honest opinion of the first ~33% of it. My favorite thing about The Bridge of Little Jeremy was the immersive setting of Paris. Jeremy and his dog Leon spend a lot of time adventuring around Paris, and these passages are written in such a way that I felt like I was wandering alongside them. At times I felt that the descriptions of Paris were a bit superfluous – some detail could have been omitted and the passages still would have been quite immersive – but at other times these scenes took on an absorbing and surreal quality, which might not have been achieved without such vivid detail.

I also liked the main character, Jeremy. He is kind and compassionate toward people and animals alike, he is confident and charismatic, and he doesn’t let his financial and medical struggles dampen his amazement for life. The fact that Jeremy retains his childlike curiosity in spite of his struggles made him a very realistic child narrator for me (and in this way he reminded me of Jai from Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line).

My main issue with this novel was that I just couldn’t get into the writing. There was a lot of focus on the mundane details of Jeremy’s day-to-day life, which worked well at times, but fell flat at others. Based on the first ~33% of this book, I think it could have been considerably shorter. Interestingly, I noticed on Goodreads that the paperback format of this book (which is the format that I read) has a lower rating than either of the Kindle editions – perhaps the intricately detailed writing lends itself better to scrolling on a Kindle? If I ever get an eBook reader, I will try The Bridge of Little Jeremy again and see if the different format improves my experience.

While I enjoyed the immersive setting and compassionate main character, I couldn’t get into The Bridge of Little Jeremy and ultimately decided to stop reading about one-third of the way through. Although this book didn’t work for me, there are plenty of positive reviews of it on Goodreads, so do still check it out if you’re interested! And maybe go for an eBook edition, since that format has higher reviews than the paperback format.

Thank you to Estelle Leboucher for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: My Dark Vanessa

In the year 2000, 15-year-old Vanessa Wye has an affair with her 42-year-old English teacher, Jacob Strane, at a prestigious boarding school in Maine. In 2017, Strane is accused of sexual abuse by another student, who reaches out to Vanessa in hopes of uncovering the scale of Strane’s abuse. But Vanessa doesn’t believe she was ever abused – she views her relationship with Strane as a love story, and still keeps in contact with him seventeen years after their affair. As abuse allegations surface on social media and make news headlines, Vanessa is forced to revisit her teenage years and reconsider the relationship from a new perspective.

The book: My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Rating: 5 stars out of 5

My Dark Vanessa is deeply disturbing and uncomfortable, yet so captivating. The chapters alternate between Vanessa’s high school and college years in the early 2000’s, and her adult life in 2017 when the abuse allegations against Strane come out. The alternating timelines work really well here, because they show not only how Strane manipulated Vanessa as a high-schooler, but also how that manipulation has shaped Vanessa’s entire self-concept and still affects her seventeen years later.

The character development in this novel was incredibly nuanced: Vanessa is complicated, frustrating, heartbreaking and painfully believable. Through Vanessa’s character, author Kate Elizabeth Russell effectively shows the complex effects of surviving covert abuse, and how particularly insidious abusers can manipulate their victims into believing they are willing participants in an abusive relationship. Russell also shows glimpses of how abuse survivors unwittingly perpetuate the cycle of abuse: because Vanessa doesn’t believe herself to be a victim of abuse, she does not empathize with other women who identify as victims, and even blames other women for letting themselves get involved with predators. In real life, I would find somebody like Vanessa incredibly frustrating, but getting to know her character in this novel, I felt so much heartbreak and tenderness for this woman who was groomed to perceive the world in a truly flawed way.

Something else that stood out to me in My Dark Vanessa was the dynamic between Vanessa and her parents. While I certainly wouldn’t consider Vanessa’s parents to be abusive, they do neglect Vanessa and fail to support her emotionally, which makes her melancholy and lonely even before Strane begins his affair with her. It is no coincidence that Strane singles out the loneliest student, one who might be used to having her needs neglected. Abusers specifically target people that they think will make easy victims, and Russell does a great job illustrating this.

I adored My Dark Vanessa, and would recommend it with the caveat that the scenes between Strane and Vanessa can be pretty difficult to stomach. This novel was such an enthralling read, and I loved the way it portrayed the healing process in a realistically complex yet compassionate way.

Book Review: Hex

Written as a series of journal entries to her ex-mentor Dr. Kallas, Hex examines botanist Nell Barber in the months after she is expelled from her PhD program and breaks up with her boyfriend of two years. Nell devotes herself to her research on the detoxification of poisonous plants (which she conducts in her bare-bones apartment) and to Dr. Kallas.

The book: Hex by Rebecca Dinerstein Knight
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Rating: 4 stars out of 5

My favorite things about this book were the prose and the protagonist’s voice. I loved the run-on sentences, and the narrator’s realistically distracted thought process. It was also just fascinating to be inside Nell’s head; she has such a sharp, insightful, and funny world view. While I normally don’t prefer books to be written in the second person, I thought that it worked here. Nell is so obsessed with and devoted to her mentor, Dr. Kallas, that the idea of her writing a confessional journal to her was totally believable.

In general, I found Nell to be a sympathetic character. She makes decisions that no perfectly-functioning adult would make, but that are understandable given how lost she feels after being expelled from her PhD program and breaking up with her boyfriend. The way she clings onto her research and ex-mentor makes complete sense for someone whose sense of self came from working exceptionally hard and serving her advisor. With that said, it was clear that Nell was lost and lonely even before starting her PhD program. I think that Nell’s character would have been even more interesting if the underlying reasons for her unfocused nature had been explored more deeply.

Something else that I liked about this book was that it focused on a science grad student. Prior to Hex I had never read a novel focused on a female grad student in the sciences, and it was nice to see that representation! Some of Nell’s snarky comments about her (former) academic department had me laughing out loud because they rang so true to me. For example: The goal of the party was that it should seem, pretty much immediately afterward, that there had never been any party. I also related to Nell’s assessment that she had worked pathologically and unsustainably hard at her research before losing steam; this was really common in the department where I used to work, and I suspect that most people who have gone through demanding graduate programs can relate.

The main reason why this wasn’t a 5-star read for me was because some of the characters’ relationships weren’t very believable. Nell, her best friend, her best friend’s boyfriend, her ex-boyfriend, her ex-advisor, and her ex-advisor’s husband quickly became enmeshed in a way that felt unrealistic and unsettling to me. There was one romance in particular, toward the end of the novel, that developed from seemingly out of nowhere; it felt like a convenient but not particularly compelling way to wrap up the arcs of both characters involved.

If you like stories with lost and slightly unlikable characters, I definitely recommend Hex. The writing is gorgeous and funny without being dense, and getting a glimpse into the narrator’s foggy mind was a uniquely fascinating experience.

Book Review: The Most Fun We Ever Had

Alright, I’m back at it with the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist! The Most Fun We’ve Ever Had follows the close-knit Sorenson family through a tumultuous year of family secrets and tensions. A secret son reenters his mother’s life fifteen years after he was put up for adoption, causing old tensions to resurface between the two sisters who concealed his existence many years before; another daughter is left by her boyfriend shortly after she becomes pregnant with his child, although she won’t tell her family why he left her; and the youngest daughter, physically isolated in Oregon from the rest of her family in Illinois, tells a white lie that spins into a massive web of lies from which she can’t extricate herself.

The book: The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo
Genre: Fiction
Rating: 3 stars out of 5

I have such mixed opinions on this book, but one of the things that generally worked for me was the writing style. I especially liked the author’s use of trailing and stammering sentences in characters’ conversations around challenging subjects; I thought it made the dialogue more realistic. At the same time, though, there were several dramatic scenes and dialogues where the emotional impact just wasn’t there for me, so I suppose the dialogue wasn’t entirely believable. Also, this may be petty, but there were a few instances of the author using science terminology in a way that didn’t quite make sense – e.g. “the building was shaped like a genome” – and it really irked me.

The structure of the novel worked for me at first, but eventually became frustrating. The chapters alternate between past and present, with the past-focused chapters moving chronologically closer to the present, and each chapter featuring multiple characters’ perspectives in that moment in time. This worked at first, because it helped to establish the main characters and their complex relationships with each other; and some of the backstory provided in the past-focused chapters clearly provided valuable insights into the complicated family dynamic. Over time, though, the constant perspective and time shifts became jarring: a scene would start to become compelling and intriguing, only for the plot to be interrupted by a past-focused chapter that didn’t add much nuance to the story.

Thematically, The Most Fun We Ever Had did a great job demonstrating that things that look perfect on the outside rarely are. By providing inside looks into the Sorenson parents’ picture-perfect marriage, as well as the lives of the seemingly successful Sorenson children, Lombardo highlights the characters’ desires to appear that they are doing well, when in fact they are all lost in their own ways. Lombardo also depicts how some characters feel less anxious after owning up to their mistakes. This seems to be an endorsement for living honestly and authentically rather than pretending to have it all together, and it’s a message that I really appreciated, especially in a social-media-driven world where there is pressure to only share the most appealing parts of your life and your self.

Beyond that, though, I wasn’t sure what messages to take away from the novel. So many of the problems laid out in the book were specific to this one wealthy, enmeshed, and seriously complicated family. And some of the family’s problems were resolved in unsatisfying ways – like a years-long sibling tension being “resolved” because one of the siblings in the relationship apologized for her part in a fight, letting the other sibling off the hook; or an adult giving her child a shallow apology that focuses more on how much she is struggling, rather than acknowledging and validating her kid’s emotions. I suppose the takeaway in these unsatisfying “resolutions” might be that family dynamics are complicated, and that sometimes complex family conflicts aren’t resolved in a satisfying way. But still, these underwhelming resolutions – and really, the book as a whole – left me wanting more conclusiveness.

Also, as other reviewers have mentioned, there were too many main characters in this novel. There were 7 different perspectives being followed throughout the story: the Sorenson parents, their four daughters, and a daughter’s once-secret son. While I appreciated seeing the intricate family dynamic from so many different angles, I also thought that some of the character development suffered from the author trying to do too much. Specifically, the two youngest daughters of the family, Liza and Grace, and the no-longer-secret son, Jonah, all seemed underdeveloped to me. It was especially disappointing that Jonah was an underdeveloped character, because as an outsider to the Sorenson family in many ways, he is able to provide a fresh perspective on their strange dynamic, as well as their wealth and privilege. In my opinion, the entire story could have been told from the perspective of three or four main characters – with one of those perspectives being Jonah’s – and nothing substantial would have been lost.

This review is actually turning out to be more negative than I had intended. Overall, I thought The Most Fun We Ever Had was an enjoyable and entertaining read. But given the book’s length and scope, I expected more from it! And speaking of the book’s length, I didn’t explicitly address this yet, but the book could have been at least 120 pages shorter. Anyway, I recommend this book for a fun read, but I don’t quite see it as a contender for the Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist.

Side notes:

  1. Minor spoiler alert, but this book had WAY too many scenes where characters get caught/watched having sex (or foreplay that is going to lead to sex). And, yes, there was more than one scene like that!
  2. I’m surprised by how many of the WP longlist books feature “rich people problems” – this is the third book I’ve read from the longlist to do so.

Book Review: Dominicana

My latest read was Dominicana by Angie Cruz, a coming-of-age story about a fifteen-year-old girl, Ana, who enters into a loveless marriage with a man twice her age for the opportunity to move from the Dominican Republic to New York City. While the new city and the expectations of being a housewife are a shock to Ana at first, they also transform her: from a child to an adult, from a daughter to a wife, and from a passive person to a decisive one.

The book: Dominicana by Angie Cruz
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Rating: 2 stars out of 5

Based on the premise of Dominicana – a coming of age story and an American dream story! – I had cautiously high hopes going into it. Unfortunately, Dominicana ended up being a pretty big disappointment for me. One of the biggest issues I had with the novel was the lack of character development: the characters weren’t portrayed complexly enough to be interesting or believable. Ana’s mother is strict and authoritative, with not even an ounce of warmth for her children. Ana is passive and obedient, and describes the events of her life matter-of-factly, rarely processing how they have affected her. The most well-developed character might be Ana’s husband Juan – but even his portrayal is limited, and the decision to make the abusive husband the most complex character in the novel didn’t sit well with me.

Interestingly, about two-thirds into the novel, there is a major change in Ana’s home life, and after this point she does become a more compelling narrator, processing her emotions and considering what she wants from her life. This change in Ana’s emotional expressiveness made me wonder if the limited emotionality of the first two-thirds of the book was intentional. Perhaps Ana’s flat narration was meant to demonstrate how emotionally guarded and powerless to express herself she felt, and the shift to more emotionality showed how she became comfortable expressing herself once she became more comfortable in her home? Or perhaps Ana’s willingness to consider her emotions and think about her own needs was meant to signal her transition from an obedient child to an independent woman? These hypotheses are certainly possible, but they also might be a stretch. And even if they are true, I still didn’t enjoy the majority of this book.

I also found much of Dominicana to be predictable and cheesy. Sometimes predictable and cheesy works for me, if the characters are well-developed or the writing style is compelling, but this wasn’t the case with Dominicana. Because the novel was written in the voice of an emotionally flat narrator, I found most of the writing to be lackluster, and even off-putting at times (especially during the sex scenes). My favorite scenes were probably the ones where Ana spends time exploring New York City with C├ęsar – they weren’t exactly realistic, but they were touching enough that I was able to suspend my disbelief. But these were only a handful of scenes in a ~300-page novel.

What I liked about Dominicana was that it shed light on the immigrant experience in the United States in the 1960’s, illustrating the ways immigrants were exploited, discriminated against, and stuck in poor living conditions. The novel also touched upon gender roles and the societal and cultural expectations of women. However, I thought that author Angie Cruz could have gone much deeper in her exploration of these topics. Cruz also had the opportunity to explore the political climate of the United States in the 1960’s, and the United States’ intervention in the 1965 civil war in the Dominican Republic – but these topics were peppered into the story in a way that felt superficial to me.

If I could sum up my experience reading Dominicana in one word, it would be: disappointing. I didn’t find the characters or the writing style compelling, and the plot was predictable. There were parts of the novel that pulled me in, only for the awkward language (especially surrounding sex!) to push me back out. With all of that being said, Dominicana has over a 4-star rating on Goodreads, so it clearly worked for many readers. It just didn’t work for me.

Side notes:

  1. The plot synopsis that is included on the side of the book cover, as well as Goodreads, basically gives away the entire plot of the book.
  2. Based on the way I rated this novel, I retroactively changed a couple other WP longlist book ratings (if Dominicana is a 2-star novel, which I firmly believe it is, then Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line should be a 3.5 star rating because of how much better it was than Dominicana).

Book Review: Fleishman is in Trouble

Last night, I stayed up until 4 AM binge-reading Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner. The novel focuses on newly divorced dad, Toby Fleishman, who feels liberated after many years of unhappy marriage. Toby views the divorce as an opportunity to reconnect with old college friends, focus on his career, and go on dates with “self-actualized” women. But just as Toby is jumping into this new life, his ex-wife Rachel drops their kids off at his place unexpectedly and disappears. Now, on top of being a hepatologist and newly single dad, Toby must also take care of his children full-time and search for his ex-wife – all while reconciling the emotions that he has tried for years to ignore and deny.

The book: Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner
Genre: Fiction
Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5

I love a good story with an unlikable main character, and Fleishman is in Trouble was no exception. From the first page of the novel, it was clear that Toby Fleishman is an unrealistic and oblivious main character, and that most of his perspectives should be taken with a grain of salt. As the novel progressed, and Toby made one morally questionable decision after the next, it became increasingly clear that the story he told himself about his failed marriage could not possibly be the whole truth, and that he had a lot of unresolved emotional issues.

The psychologically-complicated characters in Fleishman is in Trouble didn’t just stop at Toby: all the main characters in the novel were well-developed and complex. They weren’t always likable, but I appreciated how thoroughly author Taffy Brodesser-Akner explored the roots of the characters’ challenging behaviors. It did take a while for Rachel’s perspective to be explored, though. The first two-thirds of the story revolved around Toby’s perspective, and I found myself impatiently wanting to hear Rachel’s side of the story about halfway through the novel.

One of the biggest strengths of Fleishman is in Trouble was the way it scrutinized the unfair expectations that American society places on mothers, and women in general. I loved how, through the perspectives of her characters, Brodesser-Akner called out men who take advantage of the invisible labor of women, as well as the unfair double-standards that American society places on women. Through the experiences of the two main female characters in the novel, Brodesser-Akner demonstrated how American society judges women for choosing to become housewives or stay-at-home moms, yet also punishes women and mothers for being too ambitious in their careers.

I also liked the way the novel was narrated. Fleishman is in Trouble is narrated by Toby’s college friend, Libby, who retold Toby’s and Rachel’s stories as they had been told to her. Sometimes she infused her own commentary and life experiences into the narrative, too. While some parts of the story might have worked better coming directly from Toby’s or Rachel’s perspective, I thought that Libby’s insights added a nice depth to the novel. In many ways Libby is a counter-example to Rachel: her experiences showed how women who sacrifice their ambitions to become mothers are judged just as harshly as those who are unabashedly ambitious. I also think that because Libby is less self-absorbed than Toby or Rachel, her narration was able to capture nuances that neither of theirs would.

My biggest issue with Fleishman is in Trouble was the characters’ insane wealth and privilege, and the way that was barely addressed. Rachel believes that being poorer than her wealthy classmates was the source of her unhappiness as a child, and is therefore determined to make sure her children are never excluded from top-tier social-status the way she was. She realized early on in her marriage that Toby’s salary would never be sufficient to afford her children the best opportunities, so she went back to work as a talent agent to become the breadwinner of the family. This might have worked for me…if Toby’s “insufficient” salary wasn’t a doctor’s salary of over $250,000! Especially given that the novel is narrated by Toby’s friend who has given up on professional ambition and ladder-climbing (and has moved from New York to the suburbs in New Jersey), I was disappointed by the lack of commentary on wealth, privilege, or materialism.

Overall, I thought that Fleishman is in Trouble was a great, page-turner of a novel. The characters were frustrating and oftentimes unlikable, but they were deeply developed in a way that really worked for me. I also enjoyed the novel’s commentary on gender roles in society, and the way it showed the importance to listening to both sides of every story.