I really enjoy books with psychological insight and no one does psychological self-exploration like rich New Yorkers. Fleishman is a forty-something hepatologist, recently divorced from ambitious wife Rachel and discovering a whole new world of dating options. It sounds like a Woody Allen film, and there is some humour in his situation. Still as short and pathetic as he was in his teenage years full of romantic rejection, he was starting to ask himself whether he could actually be attractive? Or was it more the case that looks were not sexual currency any more and being a newly divorced doctor in NYC was enough to warrant the attention he was receiving, from the dating apps downloaded to his phone by a work colleague. He was being sent side-boob, aubergine emojis, ass crack and devils with little horns from women who were available right now, and for nothing more than ‘no strings’ sex. However, despite this huge change in how women date he is still processing what went wrong in his marriage to Rachel, a woman he describes as having the perfect geometric hair of a blonde Cleopatra. As the novel opens, Toby Fleishman wakes up to find a text message from his ex-wife to say she has used the emergency key he gave her, to drop the children at his flat in the night because she had to go on a work trip. This is a huge imposition, although he loves being with his children, because he has things to do, work to go to and social plans in place. Rachel may as well have left a note saying ‘welcome to being a woman’.
It soon becomes clear that the author has reversed the gender roles in Toby’s marriage. He has a great job, but he is the one who takes the children to school and changes his schedule to accommodate pick ups, but this only makes sense. Toby has a lack of ambition that drives Rachel to distraction, while she travels all over the world for her job as a PR consultant and also has a busy social life. Even though Toby, and our narrator, are quite scathing about her, I could understand her trying to live up to that ideal of having it all. Isn’t it what the media tells us all women want? This is a common misconception for both men and women; having it all is possible, just not all at the same time. Rachel comes across as quite a negative character, but perhaps that’s down to the people narrating and analysing her. I didn’t find Toby a very sympathetic character either. I think this was a bias in me, it’s hard to sympathise with Upper East Side New Yorkers who are high earning professionals, when you’ve been brought up in council houses.
These characters can do anything they want. They’ve forgotten that where they are in life is a series of choices made; Rachel has chosen to pursue her ambitions and become a Mum. Toby has an incredibly rewarding career, but he has also chosen to have children and be the one who leaves work early to accommodate that. They could make different choices, but don’t seem to know this. Maybe this is the downside to being at the top of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Need, because once you’ve self-actualised there’s a lot of space for introspection. However, despite the level of introspection and analysis these characters do, they’re not very self-aware. I found this novel so psychologically astute when dissecting modern marriage, parenthood and divorce. There are beautiful passages early on where our narrator discusses the deterioration of marriage and trying to move on. Toby keeps meeting people who want to know when the rot set in:
‘These questions weren’t really about him; no they were questions about how perceptive people were and what they missed and who else was about to announce their divorce and whether the undercurrent of tension in their own marriages would eventually lead to their demise’.
More people divorce these days and there is still a value judgement made, because older generations seemed to stay together. Were they immune to the misery of marriage difficulties? If a marriage is struggling, how do we make the decision to leave?
‘How miserable is too miserable?’
In a discussion with his old friend, and our narrator Libby, Toby talks about how hindsight and perspective can change our views of the whole marriage. Does the fact the marriage ended, mean it was wrong right from the start? He likens it to a game of Othello where you start out with a board full of white discs, but they slowly become black:
‘Now you look at the marriage, even the things that were formally characterised as good memories, as tainted and rotten from the start’.
His therapy sessions ring very true, his therapist Carla is working with him on sitting with uncomfortable feelings. So, when having conversations with people who are mining him for information he tries to pass that lesson on:
‘He was working on trying not to fill in this pause; he was working on letting the discomfort of the silence be the property of the person who was mining him for dirt.’
A further awakening comes about after Rachel leaves and doesn’t return, leaving Toby to cope with work, their children Solly and Hannah, and the maelstrom of remembering the children’s heavy schedule, plus the age of social media and mobile phones with a surly teenager. This leads to a certain understanding of Rachel’s position as his career starts to suffer and he realises the full responsibilities of modern parenthood.
Then the author switches to Rachel’s perspective and we see their marriage in a totally different light. She feels that Toby is intent on being unhappy. He sees her success as the reason for his failure, when actually her success allowed him to do exactly what he wanted for a living. From his perspective, Rachel does nothing but work and neglect him and the children. He never asks whether she’s happy. When she gets home he regales her with his problems, and never lets her put her feet up and relax for a minute. She doesn’t consider divorce:
‘She never once thought she deserved happiness. She never once wondered if there was something better out there. This was their marriage; this was their family. It was theirs, they owned it, they made it. If there was one thing she’d learned from her grandmother, it was an understanding that life isn’t always what you want it to be’.
It’s hard to believe this novel was a debut, because it was so insightful and contains a wisdom about the 21st Century attitude to relationships, marriage and divorce as well as the differences between men and women. It sheds a light on unacknowledged differences between men and women in society. It’s sharply observed and describes life in upper class New York beautifully. These people are so remote from me that it was almost like having the habitat and behaviour of a rare animal presented as a study. Fleishman is the subject of the book, but the main perspectives I took away were those of Rachel and Libby. The author presses home the idea that we never truly know the inner world of those we are most intimate with. He sees Rachel as this strong bossy career woman, when actually she’s incredibly fragile. I couldn’t help but think that if Fleishman is in trouble, then Rachel is on the edge.