Toby Fleishman by Taffy Brodesser-Akner

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Toby Fleishman by Taffy Brodesser-Akner

Published by: Headline Books

Literary Fiction, 288p

Rating: 4/5 stars

Book summary

Recently separated Toby Fleishman is suddenly, somehow–and at age forty-one, short as ever–surrounded by women who want him: women who are self-actualized, women who are smart and interesting, women who don’t mind his height, women who are eager to take him for a test drive with just the swipe of an app. Toby doesn’t mind being used in this way; it’s a welcome change from the thirteen years he spent as a married man, the thirteen years of emotional neglect and contempt he’s just endured. Anthropologically speaking, it’s like nothing he ever experienced before, particularly back in the 1990s, when he first began dating and became used to swimming in the murky waters of rejection.

But Toby’s new life–liver specialist by day, kids every other weekend, rabid somewhat anonymous sex at night–is interrupted when his ex-wife suddenly disappears. Either on a vision quest or a nervous breakdown, Toby doesn’t know–she won’t answer his texts or calls.

Is Toby’s ex just angry, like always? Is she punishing him, yet again, for not being the bread winner she was? As he desperately searches for her while juggling his job and parenting their two unraveling children, Toby is forced to reckon with the real reasons his marriage fell apart, and to ask if the story he has been telling himself all this time is true.

About the author:

Taffy Brodesser-Akner is a staff writer at the New York Times Magazine. Her work has appeared in GQ, ESPN the Magazine, Matter, Details, Texas Monthly, Outside, Self, Cosmopolitan and many other publications. Fleishman Is In Trouble is her first novel and has been Longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, 2020.

My Review*

*Thank you NetGalley and Headline for the e-copy. All opinions are my own.

 Longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction this year, Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s debut novel can come across like an upper scale cushy New York couple facing aggravated marital discord in the midst of a mid life crisis but there’s a great deal more unraveling. Fleishman Is in Trouble is a sharp twist into the facades of social and individual expectations from marriage, divorce, parenting, motherhood and women with careers.

The main story has Toby Fleishman, a 41-year-old hepatologist as the narrator taking readers through how he has come to be estranged from his high income, high social connected wife Rachel. For a majority of the book, the picture we have of the marriage and his relationship with Rachel is how the later is emotionally distant and not invested totally into their marriage. The story plays out from their two kids having been dropped off by Rachel, at the home Toby lives in (but paid for by his wife), with a casual text message that she has gone to an upscale retreat. What unfolds from this point on is a whirl of playing victim; how chasms develop in a marriage that bound by children and what is socially expected from a couple; therapy sessions and career battles.

A minor narrator Libby, makes a quiet entry but the twist she brings into the narrative, not so much as a plot turner but an acrid observation of women as mothers, as career women and wives is what eventually turns the narrative beyond a mere story of an estranged couple into a universal elegy into how fissures fester in a marriage and how one’s career takes a toll on relationships and vice versa. The turn around is a writing trope yes but makes you connect to how men often gaslight women. When Rachel goes into a downward spiral, it is no surprise and the same goes with the revelations of Libby’s life. The ending is as real as how things happen in real life.

The writing is unadulterated in its sharp take on new age relationships, internet sex and dating, parenting and the men women dynamics that exist today. One might feel tempted to say, ‘oh well! This one talks about posh people and their problems’ but believe me, the brutal honesty that the author digs into to bring us the man-woman roles and expectations is something that will stay with you.

 

 

 

 

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World by Elif Shafak

Shafak

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World by Elif Shafak

Published by: Viking Books/Penguin Random House UK

Literary Fiction, 308p

Rating: 4/5 stars

Book summary

‘In the first minute following her death, Tequila Leila’s consciousness began to ebb, slowly and steadily, like a tide receding from the shore. Her brain cells, having run out of blood, were now completely deprived of oxygen. But they did not shut down. Not right away…’

For Leila, each minute after her death brings a sensuous memory: the taste of spiced goat stew, sacrificed by her father to celebrate the long-awaited birth of a son; the sight of bubbling vats of lemon and sugar which the women use to wax their legs while the men attend mosque; the scent of cardamom coffee that Leila shares with a handsome student in the brothel where she works. Each memory, too, recalls the friends she made at each key moment in her life – friends who are now desperately trying to find her…

About the author:

Elif Shafak is an award-winning British-Turkish novelist and the most widely read female author in Turkey. She writes in both Turkish and English, and has published seventeen books, eleven of which are novels. Her work has been translated into fifty languages. Shafak is an activist for women’s rights, minority rights, and freedom of speech. She also writes and speaks about a range of issues including global and cultural politics, the future of Europe, Turkey and the Middle East, democracy, and pluralism.

My Review

In her latest book (Shortlisted for the Booker), Elif Shafak brings to us the fictional lives of Istanbul’s most unwanted, most stigmatized and least understood. Told in a non linear narrative, 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World starts with Leila’s last thoughts that takes readers through the sights and smell of her childhood; growing up with her dysfunctional family; one where there are unspoken secrets and the toll they take on Leila herself; and the socio cultural norms that engulf the small town over time, mirroring the overall political landscape of Turkey.

Shafak captures the beauty of Istanbul but punctures it just as well by taking us to the seedy lanes, its unsavoury characters who prey on the lives of women. Leila as a character is the rebel, the one who questions and the one who gets pushed to the wall and then gets discarded. But she picks herself up, puts up a fight and she also finds five others who are as much living on the fringes as she is. Except for a male character who is her childhood friend and who connects with Leila because his mother is a social outcaste, all five who bond with Leila are women, each grappling with being misfits, because they are not who society wants them to be. It is through the lives of Leila and her friends that we are taken through the political history of Turkey and a bit of how global events have shaped their lives. The writing is quite a sensory experience with the lush descriptions of taste and smells of food that are central to the Turkish palate.

The plot is focused on sexual violence: in the home and outside where women are victims but continue to be vilified and thrown to the margins where they continue to be vulnerable. Leila’s life has a sad trajectory but the ending ensures that she gives something positive to her friends.

Shafak is a writer whose books and characters while being rooted in Istanbul/Turkey ties them to contemporary concerns in the world today – that of being judged, punished, exiled, unwanted, uprooted and pushed away to the margins as nameless entities. Shafak’s characters are simple yet complex, her narrative and plots revealing layers that leave readers thinking and touched.

 

 

 

 

 

A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende

Chile

A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende

Published by: Bloomsbury Publishing/Bloomsbury India

Historical Fiction, 336p

Rating: 3/5 stars

Book summary

September 3, 1939, the day of the Spanish exiles’ splendid arrival in Chile, the Second World War broke out in Europe.

Victor Dalmau is a young doctor when he is caught up in the Spanish Civil War, a tragedy that leaves his life – and the fate of his country – forever changed. Together with his sister-in-law, the pianist Roser Bruguera, he is forced out of his beloved Barcelona and into exile.

When opportunity to seek refuge in Chile arises, they take it, boarding a ship chartered by the poet Pablo Neruda to the promised ‘long petal of sea and wine and snow’ over the seas. There, they find themselves enmeshed in a rich web of characters who come together in love and tragedy over the course of four generations, destined to witness the battle between freedom and repression as it plays out across the world.

A masterful work of historical fiction about hope, exile and belonging, A Long Petal of the Sea is Isabel Allende at the height of her powers.

About the author:

Isabel Allende is a Chilean-American novelist. Allende, who writes in the “magic realism” tradition, is considered one of the first successful women novelists in Latin America.

My Review*

*Thank you Bloomsbury India for the review copy. All opinions are my own.

A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende is a sweeping narrative told through the life and times of a doctor, Victor Dalmau who serves during the Spanish Civil War, his refuge in Chile till the political upheavals that overthrew Salvadore Allende and then his political exile to Venezuela. The historical setting cannot get more fascinating than the way it is set in the backdrop of political crisis across continents as well as the humane aspect of being refugees tossed in a new country and continent.

The writing though is a bit of a let down for it reads like an impersonal text rather than a powerful narrative about citizenship and belonging, about being uprooted and trying to settle in. As a reader, you might well tend to be underwhelmed even as you know that there should be more about the story and the characters, their dilemmas that ought to have left you touched.

Apart from the writing, there were certain strands that give little comfort. For one, the ode to Neruda whose efforts in evacuating people fleeing the Spanish Civil War who are given refuge in Chile is laudable but given the ongoing discussions following the #MeToo movement around the world, Neruda making a physical presence in the story as also every chapter starting with his poems is discomforting, given he raped his maid in Sri Lanka where he had a diplomatic post. The deification could well have been avoided.

There is little for the women characters to do in the book except to be at the mercy of events around them and the whims of the men in their family. Allende also brushes away the hand of the US that toppled Salvadore Allende, an extended family relation rather cursorily which is sad in a way. This can work for first time Allende readers but will make her fans in a quandary.