Knowing something of the life of M.F.K. Fisher helped me to understand Ashley Warlick’s portrayal of the author in The Arrangement. Based on Fisher’s love affair with a married man, while she too was married, Warlick imagines the conceits and innuendoes as the two couples continue their friendship and their marriages – at times all living together.
While the premise would seem salacious, the story is, like the real life it imitates, sad and desperate. When her husband Al, an aspiring poet with a doctorate from Dijon, France, belittles her writing about food, MFK turns to Tim, children’s book illustrator as well as a friend and neighbor, for solace and editorial advice in getting her first book of essays published. When Al loses interest in having sex, she turns to Tim again, slipping into his bed at night while his movie star wife is at a party. Eventually, after much angst and soul searching, as well as trips to Europe, M.F.K. marries Tim, her soul mate.
In her recently published 1939 novel, The Theoretical Foot, Fisher describes Tim’s degenerating Buerger’s disease and the amputation of his foot before he completely deteriorates and dies. Warlick includes this piece and ends the book with Fisher giving birth to her first child two years later. I had thought Warlick might creatively solve the paternity of Fisher’s child since the real M.F.K. Fisher never revealed the identity of the father and it remains a secret. As a result, I read on longer than I should have.
Warlick’s narrative does not follow a steady timeline, and is told like a memoir, jumping in and out of Fisher’s life. Suddenly, Fisher is burning piles of notes, her first attempts at writing and later regretting it – as Fisher herself notes in one of her books. Next, Warlick reverts to Fisher’s conversations with Tim’s young wife, Gigi. But, wait, the ship is leaving for Europe months later with Tim, his mother, and M.F.K – with her husband’s blessing. In a recent article for the New York Times, Jessica Bennett noted “Research has found that when parties are getting along,they tend to mimic each others’ subtle speech patterns: ‘language synchrony’ as it is known.” I wondered if Warlick had fallen into this mode – modeling Fisher’s brand of memoir mixed with descriptions. While Fisher is noted for nostalgic reminiscences coupled with her eclectic lifestyle, Warlick floats in and out of this sliver of time, trying to fill in the crevices of Fisher’s life before and after her affair.
The Arrangement includes a number of Fisher’s quotes from her books, as well as mouthwatering details of food cooked, served, tasted, admired. Fisher’s renowned hunger – of food and love – is noted and quoted. But without at least the Scrapbook of Fisher’s life, the novel can be confusing and vague. The best part of reading The Arrsngement was the interest it awakened in me to read the books of M.F.K. Fisher herself.
Related Review: A Welcoming Life: The M.F.K. Fisher Scrapbook