“And in our laughter we heard our youth, and it is not not a dangerous thing to be at the doorstep of middle age and at an impasse in your life and to suddenly be hearing sounds from your youth.” This passage summarizes the 373 pages of Fleishman Is In Trouble.
Toby Fleishman is a 41 year old hepatologist going through a divorce with his wildly successful talent agent wife Rachel. The Fleishman’s live in Manhattan, send their two children, Solly and Hannah, to private school and live a life of privilege, albeit constant striving. Toby is considered to be on the low end of the social scale as a mere doctor, while their wealthy friends who are investment professionals seem to be on the high end. At 5 foot 5 Toby is very self-conscious about his height and as a young man was not successful with women.
Toby meets Rachel during his first year of medical school at New York University. Rachel is an English major at Hunter College when they meet. “She was everything he thought a girl should be.” Rachel was raised by her grandmother after her father abandoned the family and her mother died of cancer. Rachel’s grandmother was not a loving person and Rachel was originally drawn to Toby because of his love for her.
Rachel is very ambitious and as their marriage progresses she pushes Toby to be more ambitious. Toby resists moving beyond being a practicing physician, because he “wanted to be a doctor to cure illness…giving solace and peace and healing to someone who needed it.” Rachel starts her own talent agency and books up and coming clients and becomes very successful, earning a lot of money. She is constantly striving to make connections with people wealthier and more connected than she. After having two children and trying to maintain her professional life, Rachel becomes stretched thin and stressed. She is discouraged about Toby’s lack of ambition and finally the marriage bond breaks.
Toby and Rachel reach a tentative agreement about child custody but Rachel suddenly disappears leaving Toby with sole custody of the children. At the end of the book we understand why. Throughout the story we learn about “hook-up” apps (probably more than we need but Toby is constantly participating) and about one of Toby’s patients, Karen Cooper, with Wilson’s disease.
As a result of the divorce, Toby reconnects with two college friends with whom he spent a year abroad in Israel, Seth and Elizabeth. Seth is extremely good looking and wealthy and has not married. Elizabeth was a writer for a men’s magazine and decided to quit to take care of her husband and two children in New Jersey. Elizabeth is the book’s narrator and is also writing the story.
The book focuses on the trauma of middle age and divorce but is also an analysis of the difficulties women encounter in American culture. Both Rachel and Elizabeth struggle with the double standard imposed on them, on their professional lives and the expectations placed on them as mothers and wives. And both struggle with middle age, the resulting changes in their appearances and how society responds to those changes. “The men hadn’t had any external troubles. They didn’t have a fear that they didn’t belong…They said all the things I wasn’t allowed to say aloud without fear of appearing grandiose or self-centered or conceited or narcissistic.” This is not to say that the men in the book are not also struggling with middle age, but the struggle is different.
And finally, the book addresses the role of extreme wealth and how it affects people’s expectations and entitlements. ”It was not just about owning the city. It was about owning everything beneath and above and behind the city, too.”
The book starts out strong, bogs down in the middle and ends somewhere in between. It is not exactly an uplifting portrait of middle age and marriage. All that said, I am glad I read it but am not quite sure I can recommend it to anyone who has not passed through this phase of life. You can reserve the novel at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.