By Trevor Moore
Fleishman is in trouble
Taffy Brodesser-Akner, Wildfire, 2019, ISBN 978-1-4722-6706-1, 373pp
January is not a month for new books, but I was passing Janice’s fine bibliographic emporium, Moruya Books, and I called in to say Happy New Year. In this I am being optimistic for it has not been uniformly happy and I was persuading myself that it could only get better until they invented the Coronavirus. But I remain optimistic. I had been subjecting myself to a surfeit of non-fiction over the Christmas and New Year period. I had just finished Thomas Penn’s ”The Brothers York: An English Tragedy” which is largely about Edward IV but deals also with his brother the Duke of Clarence (he was the one who was drowned in a butt of malmsey) and his other brother, Richard III. Edward IV was the father of Edward V who was one of the Princes in the Tower that Richard III is alleged to have had (and probably did have) murdered. Though we will never know. I didn’t know much about Edward IV but I think that he may have been at least as incompetent leader as our Prime Minister. But I am betraying my prejudices and getting carried away from my subject.
I picked up A N Wilson’s recently published (2019) biography of Prince Albert (Wilson is a great writer and Albert is a bit of a weirdo, at least when judged against today’s social mores) and then Janice pointed to Fleishman is in trouble and said that she had not originally intended to order it but, having done so, it had been flying off her shelves. Now a recommendation from Janice is better than a racing certainty so, though I am not a betting man, I added it to the heap. And my word I am glad that I did for it is a ripping and, if you take it seriously, a thought-provoking novel.
Taffy Brodesser-Akner, apart from boasting a magnificent name, is a writer for The New York Times Magazine and this is her first novel. I hope it will not be her last. The novel is told through the eyes of a long-time friend, one Libby Epstein, of its eponymous hero. You don’t realise this at first; you think that it’s just a novelist writing. And the word “hero” to describe the central and diminutive (he is only 5 ft 5 in (165cm in new money)) character. He is one Toby Fleishman and he is a hepatologist (which as you all know is a liver specialist) though he doesn’t seem to do a lot of work. While he is the central character his recently divorced ex-wife Rachel Fleishman who also plays a significant role, through Toby’s eyes initially and then later through Libby’s.
I suppose that many of us look at other people’s relationships and wonder how the hell they work. Perhaps we look at our own and wonder the same thing. But it is as well not to jump to conclusions. This is a novel about relationships and one in particular. But it is also a novel about the two individuals in this relationship and their expectations, disappointments and peculiarities. The book is in three parts. It has no chapters but the text is split into pieces (I do hate those books (and the much over-hyped and frankly deadly dull Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellman springs to mind) where there are no chapters and you can never remember what just happened when you start reading again.) But Brodesser-Akner has a story to tell and she tells it in a way that romps along and draws you in before you realise that perhaps you should not have been drawn in. And as Libby tells her story you realise that she herself is not perhaps all she’s cracked up to be.
Ultimately, I suppose this is a novel about human misunderstanding, about how we are a product of our pasts and about how that affects everything we do, think and believe. We should listen more, perhaps, and try to understand where other people have come from and why they are the way they are. But I will continue to look at other people’s relationships and, every now and then, wonder how the hell that one works.
But this is a great book, an easy read and a good story told by a good storyteller. Buy it and read it.
Here are the other books I mention in this review:
Thomas Penn, ”The Brothers York: An English Tragedy”, Penguin Books Ltd , ISBN 978-1-8461-4690-9, 2019, 688pp. Of course, you will know that Richard III, Edward IV’s brother, was beaten at the Battle of Bosworth by Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond who became Henry VII and was Henry VIII’s father. Penn has also written Winter King: The Dawn of Tudor England (2011) which is about Henry VII which I must have bought at some time and never read. I will fix that soon. And you ought to know that Battle of Bosworth (named after the battle in 1485) is a fine Maclaren Vale winery whose winemaker Louise Hemsley-Smith stands alone.
A N Wilson, Prince Albert : The Man Who Saved the Monarchy, Harper, ISBN 978-0-0627-4955-0, 2019, 448pp.
Lucy Ellman, Ducks, Newburyport, Text Publishing, ISBN 978-1-9222-6893-8, 2019, 1020pp. I struggled with steam of consciousness that is alleged in one review to be “unforgivably funny”. It is not particularly funny though I will concede that some parts are amusing but a stream of consciousness that lasts 1020 pages is certainly unforgivable. Having said that I note that it won the 2019 Goldsmiths Prize and was shortlisted for the 2019 Booker Prize so perhaps the judges of those competitions know something that I don’t.