[I read this book in four sections, writing about each section before reading on. I never knew what would be coming next.]
27 July 2019
First half of Part 1—Fleishman is in Trouble
For a 40-something woman, Taffy Brodesser-Akner knows how to present a convincing version of a man’s life in New York. He is Toby Fleishman, also in his 40s, recently divorced, and—how does it go?—‘the city he’d lived in all his adult life … was suddenly now crawling with women who wanted him.’ We guess that this is highly ironic—it’s part of the first sentence in the novel—and we’re right. What Toby has discovered, as the narrator puts it later, is what his phone is for. He is on four dating apps and, mostly through his favourite one, he keeps getting sent texts and often graphic selfies from women who think he might be worth a try. We’re familiar with the narrative technique, which is omniscient third-person limited. We’re getting absolutely everything from Toby’s point of view, via that narrator I mentioned…
…except it turns out not to be that, not quite. This isn’t a conventional invisible narrator, but a character in her own right, her existence signalled some time in the first twenty pages or so when an ‘I’ is used. It’s an old friend of his from college days who’s telling us all this, and she outlines their back-story a little further on. They, plus someone else called Seth, met on a kibbutz and kept in touch until Toby’s marriage some years later. I’m mentioning this now not because of the friendship—although Toby decides to make contact again after the divorce—but because it’s a surprise. We thought we were getting the straightforward male point of view that we might expect from an author like Philip Roth, but this is mediated by way of a woman’s voice. Like Brodesser-Akner, she knows about men, both having been journalists on men’s magazines. Which goes some way towards explaining why both author and narrator can give us such a plausible version of a man’s experience.
I shouldn’t get too tied up in that for now. But this author is tweaking the male-gaze novel in her own way, not merely pastiching the style but somehow subverting it. What else is to come? I’m less than a quarter of the way through it, and already we begin to see the expected parameters becoming less clear. Toby’s perceptions of the women he meets—the narrator, whose name I forget, if she’s ever mentioned it, is as frank as he would be himself—make for fairly grisly reading. One chapter not long before the point I’ve reached, is ‘a mostly complete inventory of the women that Toby had encountered romantically, both sexually and otherwise,’ and it’s horrible. His new-found ‘freedom’ is an almost endless round of disappointments, often ending—as do two consecutive encounters—as ‘he masturbated furiously in his self-loathing.’
But as I said, it isn’t only about that. Rachel, Toby’s ex-wife, is a constant presence. If Toby isn’t with her—we discover in the last chapter I’ve read that she still calls him for sex, often, and it’s even more unromantic than his dates—she’s in his thoughts, or his conversations. He talks about her to the people they’ve both always known, to the two old friends, and to the two children who come to him at the weekends. We’re building up a picture of her, and it isn’t at all attractive. Toby is scrupulously fair about her when he’s with the children, a likeable nine-year-old boy and an eye-rolling eleven-year-old girl. He considers himself a good man, and the narrative backs this up. He’s a doctor in a world in which the professional classes rather look down on doctors and, if the one scene set in the hospital is anything to go by, he’s good at his job. But his two old friends hate her, wondered why he ever married her, and they all agree that she’s a ‘crazy bitch.’ Certainly, she has always seemed to put her work first, leaving Toby to do a lot of the real child-rearing…
…but we need to be careful. The narrator isn’t neutral, she’s an old friend who might well have gone out with Toby herself if his shortness—he’s only five-five—hadn’t made her even more self-conscious about her height than usual. We’re sophisticated readers, we know about unreliable narrators, and… what? There might be a lot more to Rachel than Toby and his friends are letting us know. Maybe they don’t know the whole story themselves. One thing Toby had always known is that her own childhood wasn’t loving, and that part of her attraction to him was the closeness of his own family. She’d bought into it, and had begun to observe Jewish practices more wholeheartedly—I didn’t mention this was a Jewish New York novel—as though she’d found something she’d been searching for.
It wasn’t, apparently. What she was searching for. Soon the Friday night rituals were losing out to her busy work schedule, her buying into the idea of family seeming less whole-hearted all the time. These things are presented by way of Toby’s resentment, part of the package of complaints he has about how, in marriage, what you first sign up for isn’t what you end up getting. He is constantly speculating about whether this always happens, looks for evidence that no long-term marriage is happy. Newlyweds, he can’t help thinking, are always in for a nasty surprise. Meanwhile there is Seth, the opposite of him in most ways. He’s attractive, has always found short-term hook-ups both convenient and easy—he even treats longer-term relationships as less temporary versions of these—and seems to prove that marriage is unnecessary. Except I’m not going to believe for a moment that in a novel like this there’s any future for a 40-something who never commits and follows his penis every step of the way.
Meanwhile, what of the narrator? Good question. She’s married, but is at a tricky period in her life. She’s a journalist, but is currently spending time as a stay-at-home mom—and she hates it. She’s very happy that Toby has called, out of the blue, and they start to see each other for lunch. It’s all above board—he’s telling her everything, which is why she can give us such a blow-by-blow account, so to speak, of his life in the singles game. He tells her and she, a woman who has always liked him, is telling us. OK. Meanwhile, during their second or third lunch—this is fairly early on, and nothing has happened since to change the status quo—he reminds her that her marriage is working out. ‘You don’t know anything about my marriage,’ she says. This comes after she has described her magazine, one that established its reputation for publishing an epoch-making article about divorce, ‘Decoupling.’ In the world she inhabits, marriage is no more fixed than in Seth’s. Maybe.
Enough for now. There’s plenty more going on-the children’s summer camps and sleepovers, the parents of their friends—but I’m not going to try to cover everything. But where’s Rachel? The main action has taken place over a weekend, when Toby wakes to discover she had dropped the kids off almost a day early, using the emergencies-only key to his apartment. And now he’s getting even more exasperated with her than he had been then. There’s no sign of her getting back from her long weekend at a fashionable yoga retreat—expensive self-help gimmicks are de rigeur in the circles she aspires to move in—and he’s having to change his own plans, while she isn’t even acknowledging his texts. Where is she?
Second half of Part 1
Worse and worse. It becomes more worrying, and even more inconvenient, when Rachel is still away on Monday. Then Tuesday, Wednesday and the rest of the week. By the end of it, Toby has persuaded his son that stay-away camp for a month is just what he would like… so, to his sister’s disgust, he ends up on the bus to the same camp she’s going to. But that’s a long way down the line on Monday morning. Toby has to phone their long-suffering babysitter Mona, who has the week off because Rachel was supposed to be taking the kids to the Hamptons. Yes, really—she’s that aspirational, and has used a lot of her money to buy a big holiday home for them there. Toby, meanwhile, has to go to work, so Mona it has to be. But she won’t be able to do Tuesday because by the end of Monday, Toby has sacked her for not supervising his boy’s Internet time, and he’s been traumatised by porn. Toby clearly hasn’t heard of child security systems, but never mind that.
He ends up taking the rest of the week off, but not before the stress of it all leads to him to alienate all but one of his ‘fellows’, the four young doctors he’s mentoring in hepatology, by bawling them out for their cluelessness when it comes to dealing with people. Laugh? Nope. The one fellow still definitely on his side might, or might not, be attempting to make a move on him. By the time he’s back from the Hamptons he’s almost given up trying to interpret what anything means any more. These chapters almost all focus on Toby’s annoyance, then rage, then increasing worry, about what is going on with Rachel. We’re still getting the same (implausibly detailed) third-person narration, still getting the almost minute-by-minute experience of this poor guy who’s just trying to do his best. I’m wondering more than ever, what’s the real story? Why is this author, a woman, giving us a narrative about how a likeable, hardworking man is given the run-around by his ‘crazy bitch’ wife? I have my own theory, and I’ll come back to it…
…but first, the other things that are going on. Running right through the whole story is a merciless satire of the New York upper-middle classes. Toby doesn’t count himself as one of them, despite reminding himself from time to time that he earns ‘nearly a quarter of a million.’ Aspiration is for other people, with their fancy holidays, their self-pampering lifestyles and, in the case of the women, the clothes, makeup and hair-colourants they use to keep up with everybody else. In a flashback, we see how mortified and disgusted he is by Rachel’s underhand attempt to get him out of medical practice, the thing he keeps saying he loves. During a weekend staying at the huge house of one of their richest friends, he feels ambushed into having a conversation about how he could be earning a seven-figure salary heading up a section in the friend’s private medical company. The way Rachel doesn’t care about what he wants, always complaining about how she is the only one bringing in real money, is a big part of why the marriage couldn’t last. He sees the dollar signs in the eyes of these people, and Rachel wants him to be one of them. If we’re to believe him, he’s holding out against her efforts—and it drives her nuts.
Meanwhile there’s the sex. Things have settled down, slightly—these chapters only cover a few days, and he’s mostly with the kids—but there is one woman whose texts become ever more insistent. He gives in at last, and—and what? It’s glorious, everything promised in that ironic-seeming line at the start of the novel. Except, of course, it isn’t. She’s as needy as he is—and meanwhile, in the background, he’s started getting advice from Seth. Like going to yoga classes—which, according to him, sends all the right messages to any woman there. (Toby does yoga already. And he has a therapist. And he works out occasionally. He’s not as far-removed from the rich New Yorkers’ self-improving lifestyle as he pretends.)
And all the time, what on earth has happened to Rachel? It’s pretty bad by the second weekend of her absence, and he’s wondering whether she’s still alive. He has tried to call the yoga/meditation venue, but gets post-hippie nonsense from the woman on the phone about the sanctity of their guests’ checkout status. Fine, Toby knows this is the post-commonsense world he lives in now. But it isn’t fine… and it gets worse still in the final chapter or two of Part 1. He bumps into two of the prosperous wives he doesn’t like, parents of his kids’ friends. And, after the kind of sympathetic conversation he’s very tired of, he registers that one of them mentioned earlier that he’s the second Fleishman they’ve seen that day. They’ve seen Rachel, lying on a towel in the park, seemingly without a care in the world. And that new haircut!
Poor Toby, we might be thinking. But I mentioned before that I think Brodesser-Akner isn’t exactly playing it straight. Quite near the end of this section, she slips in a little reminder to us that with any story, other versions are available, as she has her narrator return to a particular detail about ‘Decoupling’. It had been a perfect example of the New Journalism of the time, with the magazine’s top writer getting right into the nitty-gritty of one man’s painful divorce. The detail we get now is that the wife had insisted on an interview, which the writer grants. And his treatment of her in the article immediately became the stuff of legend—until, over time, its fame became first notoriety and then contempt. The narrator picks out the key line for us: ‘I left the restaurant, my hanky wet with her tears, and I thought about how the bitch will try to get you every time.’
This is just four pages from the end of Part 1, and it’s as clear as a nudge in the ribs: we’ve only been getting one version so far. It’s being given to us by somebody who likes Toby and definitely does not like Rachel—and if we believe it, she turned into a status-hungry, unprincipled, shamelessly materialistic monster. She made Toby feel bad about not seeking promotions that would take him away from the work he loved, gave him no choice but to spend far more time looking after the kids than she did herself and, one of the most ball-breaking crimes of all, made him feel bad about how little he earned compared to her.
It’s a hatchet-job…. And I’m wondering why the narrator is doing this. Maybe, in a single chapter which is all about her, not Toby, she gives us a clue. She describes how she hasn’t been getting anywhere with the memoir she had intended to write while she isn’t working, and maybe what we’re reading is what she has decided to write instead. Maybe there’s more to that reference to ‘Decoupling’ than simply a reminder that we should beware whose version of a story we listen to. Maybe—and it’s a single phrase on the back cover of the book that makes me think this is a possibility—she is going to pull this version apart: ‘This book is … is the most astonishingly brilliant Trojan Horse of a novel.’ My goodness. So far, all the brilliance has been in the way it pastiches male writing—I was struck by the cartoonish final paragraph, full of stuff like ‘his face melted off his skull and his life would never be the same again’—but…
…I notice that Part 3, roughly the final quarter of the book, is subtitled Rachel Fleishman is in Trouble. Maybe lovely, thoughtful, dedicated Toby was always impossible to live with. Maybe, without meaning to—or whilst pretending to himself he wasn’t doing it—he managed to shred Rachel’s self-esteem. She somehow had to prove to herself that she was worth something, and the resource she discovered in herself—coming as it did at a cost she couldn’t find any way to avoid—was an ability to make a success in her own business. Living with Mr Perfect, there was no other way for her to match him. Maybe what we’re reading will turn out to be a 21st Century riposte to ‘Decoupling’. So far, the narrator has seemed to go along with her male friends’ assessment of the ‘crazy bitch.’ But maybe she decided a long time ago that it’s time someone stood up for the bitches.
Part 2—What an Idiot He’d Been
Same. And different. Same, in that we’re still getting Toby’s point of view, nearly all the time. Different, because we’re hearing much more from the narrator about her own life, and her hints that whilst she likes Toby a lot, she also sees him for what he is—a self-centred man in a self-centred male world. It’s more subtle than I feared it might be, with Brodesser-Akner’s careful management of the narrative enabling her to do more than simply reverse the hatchet-job the offstage Rachel has had to suffer. But by the end of this section—and I’ve already mentioned that Part 3 is Rachel Fleishman is in Trouble—we’re absolutely sure that the collapse of this marriage is definitely not only one person’s fault. I was speculating earlier that maybe Rachel was having to hold her own in a marriage to Mr Perfect, but by now we’ve had a hint of his anger management issues, and recognise his complete inability to engage with what it might be like for Rachel, passed over for promotion in a male-dominated field…
…which, I think, is the first time we really understand this. In a flashback maybe 20 pages into Part 2, we discover why Rachel left a successful company in order to set up her own agency. It’s the old story: a man gets the promotion that should have been hers. And it’s the other old story too: she wouldn’t sleep with the boss, although he cites a different reason, that she was trying to hide her first pregnancy until after the announcement. Toby is really, really angry—but his anger has nothing to do with what Rachel was subjected to by her boss, or with the devastating effect on her career. She tells him why she hadn’t mentioned it at the time: ‘I didn’t think to. It was just something that happened at work.’ She says more, and it isn’t flattering to his ego. ‘He didn’t like how not a part of this story he was. He didn’t like that he was only hearing about this because it was mitigating information against something else that had happened that day. He didn’t like that she didn’t seem to think her marriage was relevant to all this.’ He only mentions the bit about the marriage to Rachel, and she isn’t impressed. ‘This isn’t about our marriage, Toby. This is about me.’
t gets better. Or worse. She goes on to say that she didn’t get the promotion because she didn’t tell them she was pregnant. Toby completely overrides her: ‘That’s bullshit. They didn’t make you partner because you didn’t sleep with [the boss] and they don’t fundamentally respect you.’ / ‘Her response came like a boomerang. “Fuck you, Toby.”’ And he doesn’t get it. For him, it shows how she has brought the company culture into the marriage: ‘she spoke to her subordinates like they were pieces of shit,’ as does everybody there, it seems—and this is now how she talks to him. Nothing to do with him. Why wouldn’t he expect the sort of loving wife other men have, a wife who might occasionally say something positive about what happens in their lives? He can’t understand it.
This episode is pivotal. It comes almost exactly half-way through the novel, and from now on Toby isn’t going to be getting it all his own way. We begin to see—what? nothing so simple as a selfish oaf who never understood his wife’s good qualities. We start to get a more rounded picture, and not only of this marriage. Libby—we’ve found out the narrator’s name, if we didn’t know it before—has a complicated agenda. Among other things, it has a lot to do with how every married person in New York—including her and her husband—starts off with unrealistic expectations and, as time goes on, almost never appreciates that the cracks that appear aren’t all the other person’s fault. It isn’t about blame, or how the other person doesn’t come up to standard, because any standard is imaginary.
What’s happening for most of Part 2 is to do with Toby and the continuing crisis in the family’s lives since Rachel’s disappearance. Stuff keeps happening, almost all of it bad—this was never going to be a feel-good novel—and by the end of it Toby is having the most stressful time of his adult life. I’ll come back to all that but I need to talk about Libby first. She hadn’t been hiding herself even in Part 1, but in Part 2 she’s becoming central. This is especially so in the second half, following another of those chapters about working as a journalist on a men’s magazine….
She was never, ever going to get the same assignments as the men, but she doesn’t carp on about it. Instead, she explains what particular niche she was able to create for herself—and reader, it was all about the Trojan Horse. In writing about her male subjects and their privileged male lives—they ‘hadn’t any obstacles, … were born knowing they belonged, and were reassured at every turn’—she would write about what she knew from her experiences as a woman. ‘They felt counted out, the way I felt counted out. They felt ignored, the way I felt ignored…’ and so on. ‘I wrote about my problems through them. / That was what I knew for sure, that this was the only way to get someone to listen to a woman—to tell your story through a man. Trojan horse yourself into a man.’
So here we have Libby, née Elizabeth Epstein, telling us exactly what she is doing. And it’s what Taffy Brodesser-Akner is doing. It was at this moment that I realised that Toby’s experience of the spouse who has to spend too much time at work earning the money for the lifestyle they both enjoy, doesn’t get to see the kids growing up, is jealous of the relationship with them that she doesn’t have—and who leaves without saying a word—is the experience of very few men, but thousands of women. This is Brodesser-Akner’s Trojan Horse. She’s doing what the designer of the cover of the novel has done, turning the world upside-down. As Libby says, it’s the only way to get someone to listen to a woman.
Is it brilliant? It comes close for me, because Brodesser-Akner carries on telling Toby’s story pretty straight. It’s our perceptions as readers that are changing, so now we are less trusting of the version we’re being presented with. And as I’ve said, Libby herself is becoming more and more of a presence. She describes in a lot of detail what it’s like to be just like all the other women she sees at the school, at the gym, at Disney World. Her husband complains that she’s the worst kind of person to be with, and she isn’t denying it. She’s reached a point in her life where she feels she can see through it all, and what she sees fills her with horror. Toby’s reconnection to his old friends has led to her talking to Seth again, and he’s found a marijuana vaping kit she’s currently finding solace with. Not good…
…and it’s stolen from her as she sleeps in the park following one of Seth’s parties in the last few pages of Part 2. She goes to it with her husband, but he’s bored and leaves fairly early. She spends the night in Toby’s bed, but only to sleep off hours of drinking and college-days chat. She is seeing him as the only real friend she has…. But afterwards, in the final sentence: ‘Toby texted me that he was sorry, but I didn’t see the text because I was with Rachel.’ Ah. I’m not absolutely sure we’ll be ready for what she’s going to hit us with in Part 3. But, alongside Toby, we’ve come to realise that not everything is about him.
Some details of all the stuff that’s been happening meanwhile. He’s been floundering while the kids are at camp, hooking up with Nahid, the woman he’d found interesting (and sexy, and up for it, etc.) in Part 1. But she’s trapped into a lifestyle as much as he’s trapped in his. She’s separated from her fundamentalist Christian husband, and he won’t let her go out publicly into the world until he’s got the promotion he wants with the Christian organisation he works for. She can leave, but she’d have to find a job, starting at the bottom with the law degree she’s never used. her husband. Meanwhile, the narrative has made it absolutely explicit that Toby is just as compromised. He is sarcastic about the Upper East Side lifestyle, and Rachel’s obsessive pursuit of it—and he loves it. He is appalled by the prospect of losing Rachel’s allowance—in fact, a payment has just gone in at the end of Part 2, to his shamed relief—and the idea of taking the kids out of their upmarket schools doesn’t bear thinking about.
Rachel. She’s definitely around, but still refusing any contact. There’s a flashback to an excruciating dinner party they were once giving, at which she misunderstands the rules of a risqué little conversation they’re having. Basically, if the marriage allowed it, who would you screw? You choose a celebrity, and everybody makes knowing comments. Fine. Rachel comes in from the kitchen, asks what they’re doing, and chooses a man they know, a parent at the school—the successful one who had offered Toby that job in Part 1. It’s excruciating, obviously…. And when Toby decides to use his key to get into the apartment where she still lives, he finds evidence of this man everywhere. He leaps to the conclusion, which might or might not be accurate, that she has got exactly what she always wanted. The space that used to be taken up by the undersized loser now has someone worthwhile filling it.
But, day by day, it’s the kids who are causing him the most stress. He thinks he can do it on his own, but he can’t, at any level. It’s not only the money—it only seems important when he’s forced to think about it—it’s the advice he can’t give, the need they have for their mother… and the rest. We remember how he hadn’t remembered to protect his son from the dark pit of the Internet in Part 1, and now the daughter falls into a social media abyss. It’s the one that every young girl needs to be told about: never send a sexy picture of yourself. Toby hears about her doing just that, to a boy who had immediately shared it with everybody. Toby had only bought her a phone just before she went to camp—earlier than they had originally agreed—and now he gets a call from the camp leader. Their policy is to send the culprits home. Fine—or not fine, because the boy will be staying, his super-rich parents being in Switzerland for the summer. The poorly-hidden look of complacent entitlement on his face is all too recognisable….
On the way home, Toby decides to come clean about Rachel’s disappearance, and the fact that they are probably going to be a one-parent family from now on. Is this a good idea? How should he know? He’s doing this on his own, because not a single professional who might be able to advise him is available at any price. It’s a particularly hot and sticky summer, and it’s chaotic in the small apartment. The air-con is broken, and the rescue dog he picked up before he got the call from the camp—I’m not making this up, but I suppose Brodesser-Akner needs to add new ingredients to the mix—is taking dumps whenever and wherever it feels the need. Which is quite often.
Enough of Toby? Except that his work, which had been ticking along, is becoming almost as stressful. He’s had to take another day’s leave to pick up the kids, and the liver-failure patient he diagnosed in an early chapter, and who reached the top of the transplant list in time, and who was making a recovery… has just had a probably fatal stroke. Toby has spoken to the patient’s husband, and it’s all terrible—but then he gets a different picture of things from the woman’s friend. The patient had been just about to leave the cheating husband, the one who had seemed so devastated by his wife’s condition that Toby had been envying him. The narrative is explicit about how it’s another example of how no marriage is ever how it looks. Also in the hospital… is that 20-something fellow, who Toby decides really probably is the one he should aim to make a new life with. He hasn’t said anything yet—but it definitely isn’t a coincidence that the perpetually single Seth has decided to marry a 20-something woman. Whenever Toby and Libby are with them both, they can’t believe how young she is, and how wrong it feels. 20-somethings are a different species in this world.
What about Seth? Toby, or Libby (or both) have decided that what’s happening to him is inevitable. His bachelor lifestyle, his serial hook-ups, the high-profile themed parties he’s been having for nearly 20 years—they’ve always been an escape from the realities of adult life. Toby is astonished that Seth is seeking advice from him, of all people. All he and Libby can do is try to explain that however it feels now with the ‘golden’ young woman, it won’t always be like that. It just won’t. Libby, still inside her marriage and with no definite plans to leave, can only tell Seth what she knows. And then she can fall asleep and lose the vaping kit that has been allowing her to function for some days now, if not weeks.
And I really haven’t any idea about what Part 3 will bring. It’s only half the length of the other parts, but I’m guessing it won’t be any less unsettling.
Part 3—Rachel Fleishman is in Trouble
No, it isn’t. Any less unsettling. After an odd little coda to finish off the story of Toby’s horrible summer—tell you later—we get, finally, the story of Rachel’s even worse one. The two stories don’t quite come together at the end, except for the tiniest of little teasers in the final sentence—tell you about that later too—because, instead, this really becomes the story of two women’s lives. One is Rachel, obviously, and the other, narrating all this and now offering a run-down of her own philosophy of marriage and women’s place in it, is Libby. Near the end she explicitly compares herself and Rachel. They’ve done it differently, trying their best—just as Toby was doing in Part 1, as I described it—and, because it’s an impossible task, failing. As a kind of aside, at one point she describes her own response to a young couple she sees, still besotted by one another. Her prognostication is as doom-laden as we’ve come to expect. She also offers a gleeful little account of Seth’s first experience of marital misunderstandings, on the very evening of their engagement. How we laughed. We’ve encountered her cynicism before… but it is cynicism? Her project seems to have been to convince us that it isn’t. She’s just telling it as it really, really is.
I’m not sure it works. The Trojan Horse works… although, in hindsight, I don’t think Brodesser-Akner needed to spend literally hundreds of pages having Toby’s life morph into something new and strange. If she could have reduced it, it would have left more room for Rachel’s story. Don’t get me wrong—we end up with a completely new understanding of why she behaved as she did during the marriage. Libby—I’m considering calling her Libby/Taffy, because this is all about authorial choices now—pings back to us incidents and ways of doing things that we already know about from Toby’s point of view. And it’s mostly really well done. We’re being prepared—we’ve already been prepared, to a large extent—for the pessimism of Libby/Taffy’s philosophy at the end. But. But but but (as Libby might say, because she does that sort of thing)…. For most of her (minor) share of the novel, Rachel is heading towards her breakdown and out the other side. We never get a fully-formed retrospective view of her life, just a number of insights into why she felt she had to do particular things in the way she did.
For me, this is a problem…. But never mind that for now, because I should talk about the things that happen in Part 3. Starting with that coda of Toby’s, which takes up the first eight or nine pages. He doesn’t know that he’s a part of Libby/Taffy’s larger plan, which is about having a man suffer the humiliations that are no more than routine for women. So on the morning when he thinks his big promotion is to be announced, we know he’s riding for a fall. ‘Vindication was coming. … You don’t have to kneecap anyone else. You don’t have to eat your young. You can just quietly do good work. The system still favours good work.’ It turns into the darkest kind of comedy as his brain is unable to process what he hears: ‘Someone job for hired else we the.’ And when he hears the next bit—‘Outside hired someone from…’ etc.—it get worse still: they’ve hired someone he was at medical school with. The (very male, very ambitious) boss explains: ‘Nobody doubts your skill. But they felt you were unwilling to give the time.’ And when Toby describes the time he’s spent on his patient recently his reply is bounced straight back at him: ‘You’ve taken how many personal days in the last three weeks?’
Oh, the irony. Toby had never been ambitious, was more than willing to schedule his duties around the need to be at home with the kids, and now it’s payback time. He can hardly believe it, but we can. It’s the final component of the Trojan Horse project—but there’s more bad stuff still to come for our man. His patient dies, but only after he’s decided he needs the sort of TLC only a proper long-term relationship can provide. The thing with Nahid is going nowhere, so he asks his 20-something fellow to a night out with him and the kids. Bad move. For the rest of the novel, he’s expecting a call from HR… and the only mercy for him is that the call doesn’t come. Maybe his experience as the male mirror-image of women’s lives is enough for Brodesser-Akner. She doesn’t need him to suffer the shame of a harassment charge too.
It’s time for Rachel’s story. Over a couple of pages, Libby tells us how terrible Rachel is looking—she had accidentally met her at the end of Part 2—and then she’s straight into exactly the same kind of narrative we got with Toby. His summer had taken up most of the 300 pages we’ve had so far. Rachel’s summer, beginning with the lead-up to the (short-lived) affair with Mr Successful—and with background details appearing along the way of her version of the Fleishman marriage—takes up a fraction of Toby’s share. Brodesser-Akner aims to cover a huge amount of ground, and she gives herself only 45 pages to do it in. It’s been a long time coming, and… and what? It shouldn’t have come so late. Not only does Rachel’s story feels shoehorned in, it isn’t even where the novel ends. Her work done, she can fade into the background again while an ending of sorts is provided for our old friends Toby, Libby and Seth.
Rachel’s story. I believe some of it, in fact just about everything that relates to the marriage, and why she was always too busy to be there for the kids. What she tells Libby, or what Libby comes to understand—or what Brodesser-Akner narrates, because nobody’s pretending this is really a friend’s account of a failed marriage any more—is what she sees as the huge part she has always played in the children’s lives. We’re taken back to that loveless childhood she had, but it isn’t the lovelessness she wants to avoid in her own family. It’s the humiliation she always felt at being the poorest kid in the high-end Catholic school her (Jewish) grandmother paid for her to attend. This is the terrible irony, and it’s has only just really struck me—that all she has ever been capable of focusing on is the status deficit she is determined for her children never to feel. If her kids can always get the best—and she means the best—then her job will be done.
It comes at too high a price. It’s really only now, as I write about it, that I’m feeling sorry for Rachel… and I didn’t feel that before because Brodesser-Akner doesn’t present it as her tragedy. Sure, she lets us know how for ten years and more Rachel put in the hours—not only in building up her agency, which becomes successful enough for her to get featured in business magazines, but in oiling the subtle wheels of networking among the Upper East Side parents. She nurtures the purported friendship she has with the chief of them, the wife of the very man she later has the affair with. In fact, it’s all a carefully managed game of strategy, in which she has to pretend the lifestyle comes easy, whilst dropping important business if necessary in order to be visible at the right school event or the right exercise class social.
This, in her version of things, is what Toby has never understood—or, much worse, what he pretends to despise. He loves the car, loves the apartment (with the ‘mid-cench’ décor he mocks), loves the house in the Hamptons. He takes it all for granted, as he does the children’s school fees. He might earn nearly a quarter of a million, but in their neck of the woods that would pay for none of it. Doctors are patronised because they can’t earn what it takes to keep up the lifestyle. The end. Rachel’s version of the weekend when she had tried to get him that better-paid job is a crescendo of exasperation. Doesn’t he get it? Of course he doesn’t. He accuses her of trying to ambush him into giving up the work he loves.
This is really well done. We’ve heard his version, in which Rachel is the villain of the piece, and now—what? Not that Toby is the villain, but that he wants it all. And, if we believe Rachel (we don’t, of course, not entirely), he gets it all too. She works, she gives up what she likes so that she can write those emails, keep her eye on her artists’ busy schedules, be at those openings, sweet-talk those producers…. And what does he do? The work he loves all day and every day, followed by quality-time with the kids in the evenings that she can’t be there for. She’s working too hard for all of them.
And another thing. In case we’re not convinced—and I must say, I began to think Brodesser-Akner was over-egging it a bit—we’re also told that Rachel oils the wheels of her children’s social lives as assiduously as she manages everything else. Nothing, but nothing is accidental, from the sending out of birthday party invites months ahead (to avoid the stigma of the alpha kids not attending) to the extra classes the daughter attends with all the right girls, to the son’s contact with right boys in class…. It’s both selflessly dedicated and utterly wrong. Except. Except they live on the benefits of it, and when she isn’t there, just look at what happens. A son traumatised by Internet porn, a perfect nanny sacked and a daughter expelled from camp for the most basic social-media blunder in the book.
So why am I not loving it? Mainly, because in my summary I’ve told you all you need to know about Rachel’s side. That’s all there is, a damaged woman so traumatised not only by her childhood but by the doctor who inserted a finger into her cervix to expedite childbirth—she attended a rape victim support group for weeks afterwards—and… what? It doesn’t make her either likeable or sympathetic. She’s like all those crazy bitches—and you know I’m only referencing what the characters say—you know why she’s like that but it doesn’t make you want to spend time with her. Whereas Toby, well, Toby’s a typical man, self-centred and entitled—but he’s a great doctor and he’s wonderful with the kids. In other words, it’s a failure on Brodesser-Akner’s part. We’ve spent so much time getting to know him and his side of things that when we get an explanation—and I said this before—it’s too late.
And there’s something else. Brodesser-Akner, crucially, has also has to fit the explanation for Rachel’s disappearance into the same measly 45 pages as all the rest. It begins with the story of how Rachel’s planned escape to a better life—the one Toby thinks she’s having when he sees the evidence of Mr Successful all over her apartment—all goes desperately wrong. Lover-boy is hoping for some him-time, but she becomes hooked on primal screaming and the kind of pseudo-meditative therapies you’d expect at an expensive camp. She realises too late that the retreat was supposed to be about him getting what he wanted from her. She had been proud that he was turned on by her ambition and success, and that he sought her out as a prize. But as soon as she turns out to be a woman with her own take on things, he leaves.
From this point on—plot device alert—she can’t sleep. Days turn into weeks, and Brodesser-Akner does a convincing enough job of taking us through the day-by-day onset of a complete meltdown. But, if I’m honest about it, I found it a bit dull. There’s one sequence, in which Rachel keeps deciding not to order her usual Chinese meal, but one that she remembers a college friend having. We get the same description three times, verbatim, of her decision to order, paying and tipping the delivery guy, then spitting it out in disgust. Toby had discovered the mostly uneaten packages in the fridge, and wondered who had been staying with Rachel. Yeh, yeh—it’s another of those neat little rewind/replay episodes we get all the time. None of it brings us closer to Rachel. And, when she’s alienated practically everybody she works with—she’s even lost her best client, the one she made her name with, to her horrible former boss—it feels hard to care.
Which is fine, because now the narrative reverts first to Toby and then, by way of conversations he has with Libby, to her and the book she’s writing. Rachel, her work done, becomes a character offstage again, as Libby and her old college friends finish off their own story. In fact, everybody’s work is almost done, because Brodesser-Akner has only to make sure we know what to take away from this book. Basically, that marriage is impossible, the expectations put on women are impossible, and men will never, ever be able to understand that. She’s done the Trojan Horse thing, she’s shown us the woman’s side of the story, and now she needs to let us down gently. Not too gently—Libby explains, in detail, how damned hard it is to come to terms with the truth of it, and how there is no easy solution.
It takes something like four or five pages for her to explain all this, describing mainly her own life, but mentioning Rachel’s now and then as well. At the start, she wonders what life would be like without marriage—and finds it wanting. ‘Time was going to march on anyway. You were not ever going to be young again. You were only at risk for not remembering that this was as good as it would get, in every single moment—that you are right now as young as you will ever be again.’ Two pages further on, she describes her own experience at the men’s magazine: ‘If you are a smart woman, you cannot stand by and remain sane once you fully understand, as a smart person does, the constraints of this world on a woman. I couldn’t bear it, so I retreated from it. Rachel, she endured. She tried. And she got the punishment.’ Ah. This book really is as schematic as that.
So, what to do? Libby is near Seth’s apartment as she muses on all this—Seth’s experiences have been in semi-comic counterpoint to Toby and Libby’s experiences all along—and she’s had a summer of feeling strangely unmoored. But she comes to a decision because, as she reminds herself, her husband would be ‘at home, waiting for me.’ By now, she’s come to realise that he’s as good a man as any she knows, and that her marriage works at least as well as any others she’s seen. The episode ends in the only way it could: ‘I hailed a cab and told the driver to take me back to New Jersey, which was where I lived.’
At least, she seems to be saying, it’s possible to live. Perhaps through this book—and if there’s any distance at all between Brodesser-Akner’s thoughts and those of her narrator it’s irrelevant—some greater understanding will be achieved. Perhaps. But, at the risk of repeating myself—Brodesser-Akner does, a lot, so why shouldn’t I?—this was never going to be a feel-good novel. All she can offer is the teaser that comes in the final sentence. Toby ‘heard a key in the lock and a hinge creak open and he turned to see Rachel standing in the doorway.’ If you want that to be a note of optimism, showing that Rachel must have come to the same understanding as Libby, that’s definitely an option. But Brodesser-Akner is doing something else with that sentence too. A few pages from the end, Libby had been talking to Toby about Rachel and she had predicted this moment, using pretty much an identical form of words: ‘you’ll hear a key in the door and the creak of the hinge and you’ll turn around and suddenly she’ll appear in the doorway.’
Another little metafictional joke? Another of those look-at-me repetitions, like the business with the Chinese meal? Or does it have a larger significance—Libby predicting this exact scene because what else could Rachel do? Like her, Rachel has realised there’s simply no other option. OK, maybe as a narrative trick it’s too self-conscious. Maybe—but, however much I might have been complaining, the ambition of this novel is mind-boggling. This, she is saying—and she’ll brook no argument—is what life is like for women. Rachel, Libby, maybe Taffy Brodesser-Akner herself…. In this particular segment of society, they are Everywoman.