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.

An American Marriage (plus, the blackberry jam cake from Celestial and Roy’s rehearsal dinner)

The book: An American Marriage by Tayari Jones.

Last week, I read An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. An American Marriage tells the story of Celestial and Roy, a newlywed couple whose marriage is put to the test when Roy is sentenced to thirteen years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. The novel shows the effects of Roy’s incarceration on the relationship from the perspective of three characters: Roy, Celestial, and Celestial’s childhood friend Andre.

The chapters of An American Marriage are alternatingly told from the perspectives of each of the three main characters. This technique only works when characters are well-developed, and in An American Marriage they absolutely were. The different perspectives allowed me to gain a more nuanced understanding of situations and relationships, and (usually) to empathize better with each character. I say that the differing perspectives usually elicited empathy, because there were some passages written from Roy’s perspective that made my blood boil. Celestial and Andre often omit or sugarcoat Roy’s undesirable characteristics (egotism and entitlement, to name a couple), so reading chapters from his perspective made me like him much less than I would have if his perspective hadn’t been written at all. But this makes the story more complete, more realistic.

An American Marriage illustrates many contemporary societal issues, and is probably meant to encourage discussion of those issues. With the plot revolving around the wrongful imprisonment of an innocent black man, racism of course plays a major role in the novel. Maybe even more prominent than racism in America, however, is the issue of toxic masculinity. Many of my frustrations with Roy are the result of his outdated ideas about gender roles in relationships. Roy is not solely to blame for his sexist views, however, because these ideas are clearly pervasive in the community where he grew up.

In addition to addressing pertinent social issues, An American Marriage also brings up philosophical questions about relationships and marriage. This novel left me broadly considering the institution of marriage, and what it means to commit to another person forever in a rapidly changing world. I have also been questioning whether Celestial and Roy’s relationship was destroyed by Roy’s imprisonment, or if it was simply a bad relationship that would have failed regardless.

Overall, An American Marriage was an incredible read and I highly recommend it. Parts of the plot might make your blood boil, but that speaks to the book’s ability to pull you in!

The bake: blackberry jam cake.

All my previous bakes have been loosely inspired by books, but this bake comes pretty directly from An American Marriage. At Celestial’s family’s Thanksgiving dinner, her mother Gloria makes a blackberry jam cake with “the aroma of rum, cloves, and cinnamon.” This blackberry jam cake is so special that not only did Celestial’s husband Roy request it as his groom’s cake, but it also played a role in Gloria’s courtship of Celestial’s father!

I followed this recipe for blackberry jam cake (omitting the golden raisins), and frosted it using this white chocolate frosting. Something to note about the cake recipe is that the bake time is pretty long, which may be the result of the jam in the batter. Also, because of the various textures in this cake (i.e. the chopped walnut chunks), it is a bit tricky to get a smooth frosting coat over it. Other than that, it is a straightforward cake.

I had been thinking about decorating the cake with walnuts and blackberries, as I recently adopted the philosophy that cake decorations should be reflective of what’s inside the cake. Unfortunately, I forgot to buy fresh blackberries this weekend, so I ended up decorating the cake only with walnuts.

This cake is very good: the jam keeps it moist, the spices give it a complex flavor, and the walnuts add more texture. I had a hard time picking up the blackberry flavor – the cake tasted like a sweet spice cake to me – but I still like it. In all of its complexity, this is the perfect cake to represent An American Marriage.