As the messier, sadder bigger picture emerges, the poignancy of all the characters’ plights increases. Fleishman may indeed be in trouble — but it’s probably not the Fleishman you first supposed. Brodesser-Akner’s smart novel makes this point with forceful anger — but in such a way that you can’t put it down. It’s wry, deeply felt and moving — it’s definitely the book you should read this summer.
Long litanies comprised of sentences that all start the same way are one of Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s things. A few pages later, when we meet Toby and Rachel’s 11-year-old daughter, Hannah, for the first time, the words ‘Or because’ preface 12 different possible explanations for Rachel’s increasingly bitchy behaviour. Brodesser-Akner gets away with this maximalism. She doesn’t just get away with it, she uses these passages to add to her story’s landslide momentum. She doesn’t just get away with it, she downright relishes her refusal ever to land on just one perfect description or just one plausible explanation, because she’s a natural raconteur whose knack for trapping readers in her web must leave her editors in a state of exhausted inertia. Cut a redundancy and you risk disrupting whatever intangible thing is creating that flow; best just to leave the whole thing intact, maybe adding some paragraph breaks to let the reader gasp for breath before plunging back in
Along with Brodesser-Akner’s perfect-comic-timing prose, this flip is one of the greatest pleasures in the book. Toby thinks Rachel is crazy? “If you are a smart woman”, Libby realizes, “you cannot stand by and remain sane once you fully understand, as a smart person does, the constraints of this world on a woman.” By shifting the focus at the very end away from Toby and onto Rachel and Libby, Brodesser-Akner performs a neat sleight of hand, turning a man’s travails into a woman’s growth. Usually, of course, it’s the other way around.
With her fluency in linguistic tics and social mores, Brodesser-Akner has been compared to Jonathan Franzen — a reductive side-by-side, because she is different: quicker, and more modern. The novel manages to be both a sparkling comedy of Manhattan manners (the ladies-who-definitely-don’t-eat-lunch pop up again and again, wielding green juices and excoriating put-downs) and a languid examination of the death of a relationship, of the disappointments of its 40-something characters, and the regrets of its female protagonists, who find themselves depersonalised by parenthood and the city’s alpha rat race. Debuts like this don’t come along very often.
This is the novel of the summer, already a huge word-of-mouth success. It is about love and sex and desire and loneliness and parenting and families and children and men and women, and about why people are how they are, so that at the end it is also about compassion and kindness and love. As I was saying, it is incredibly wise. There is no one that this book isn’t for. I can’t believe it’s a first novel. Pure brilliance.
Smart and sassy, but also dark and scabrous, fans of Maria Semple will love this book
What Brodesser-Akner has achieved here, by Trojan-horsing herself into Toby’s point of view, is to quietly reveal the souls of the women in the story. But more than that, to show that all stories – about marriage, love, loss, hope and disappointment – really are universal. Libby believes that “all humans are essentially the same, but only some of us, the men, were truly allowed to be that without apology”. This is an honest, powerful, human story with no apologies. And it will do the “American Novel” a power of good.
The pixelated parts of the women with whom Toby engages online never quite coalesce to form a whole in the flesh. “She wasn’t who I thought she was,” he says of one of his lovers. “She was just regular.” Even Rachel is reduced to the undulating ellipses of text exchanges. Unlike Updike, in whose work marital sex retained its libidinal lustre, the Fleishmans — still at it after their separation — couple wordlessly, expediently, devoid of the carnality that their surname implies. A glimmer of optimism at the end of the book reads more like resignation than redemption — unsurprising, perhaps, when the pathway out of a mid-life muddle is illuminated only by the dull, cold glow of a smartphone screen.
Brodesser-Akner, a Michelangelo of magazine profiles (in an echo of Libby, she used to work for GQ and now lives in New Jersey), writes with a thrilling swagger, though her descriptions can feel cartoonish, more intent on charming an audience than on getting it right. (A woman is “golden and tan, like an Oscar with hair.”) The book channels Tom Wolfe’s fiction—the gonzo, swooshy sentences, the satirical edge—and Roth is everywhere, too, in Toby’s lust, Jewishness, and incandescent neurosis. This virtuosity is pointed, maybe feminist, a claim on the self-assurance (you could say self-indulgence) of Brodesser-Akner’s male forebears. She does not so much craft prose as notate brainwaves...