Novel’s steamy recipe fizzles
THE early life of food writer and famed bon vivant MFK Fisher is chronicled in Ashley Warlick’s fifth novel, The Arrangement. Set in Depression-era California and prewar Europe, this sweeping literary tale is all about hunger — both for food and love.
After spending the first few years of her marriage in Dijon, France, Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher and her husband Al move back to California. As the economy dries up, so too does Al’s creativity. He resents Mary Frances, whose talent as a writer is blossoming, and she resents Al for his lack of passion in and out of the bedroom.
Attempting to preserve what’s left of her marriage, Mary Frances turns to food, recreating the beloved dishes she and Al fell in love with in France. Just shy of turning water to wine, Mary Frances uses what she has in scarce times to create extravagant meals, using her experiments in the kitchen as inspiration for her essays.
Navigating her new normal, Mary Frances draws ever closer to her husband’s best friend, Tim, finding in him a confidant and mentor. As her writing evolves from hobby to calling, she hides her success from Al and opens up to Tim. Unhappy and repressed, Mary Frances wants more – she wants to be successful, wants wants to be loved.
And she wants Tim. In a time when divorce was unacceptable and quiet affairs were preferable, Mary Frances learns how to take charge of what she wants, even though the consequences of her tryst with Tim are far-reaching.
When Tim’s marriage falls apart, Mary Frances and Al continue a bizarre relationship with Tim’s wife Gigi, moving in with her and taking on the roles of caretakers in Tim’s absence. Confronted by the repercussions of her infidelity, Mary Frances struggles to choose between her husband and his friend, and decides instead to hone her storytelling. Leaving behind Mary Frances, she becomes MFK Fisher.
Torn between her desire for Tim and the fear of her marriage falling apart, Mary Frances embarks on an unconventional journey to Europe with Tim, acting as a companion to his aging mother. Leaving Al and propriety behind, Tim and Mary Frances finally give in to one another. They break off their affair when their tour of France comes to a close, but try to continue their relationship when they move to Tim’s artist’s retreat in the Swiss Alps. It is here that Al finally realizes the inevitable demise of his marriage.
An accomplished author and foodie, Ashley Warlick is a fitting authority on MFK Fisher. However, her writing in The Arrangement is awkward and stilted — much like the uncomfortable love triangle Mary Frances forges with her husband and his best friend. Jumping through time with little grace and even less emotion, Warlick turns a fascinating story of forbidden romance into a dispassionate tale of adultery. Often glossing over the more difficult parts of the story — like Al leaving Mary Frances and Tim taking his own life — Warlick paints a bland picture of MFK Fisher. Though based on solid writing and research, The Arrangement misses the mark. By Ashley Warlick Viking, 308 pages,
$34 Katrina Sklepowich is a lover of all
things literary, and creator of the Literally, Katrina podcast and blog at LiterallyKatrina.com.