THE ARRANGEMENT. By Ashley Warlick. Viking. 320 pages. $26.
Oh, to be young, wealthy, clever and beautiful in 1930s California. To have avoided intense suffering during the Depression, to break free from the chains of your gender. This was the life of Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher, better known as the preeminent American food writer M.F.K. Fisher.
Ashley Warlick’s latest novel, “The Arrangement,” is an engaging story based on Mary Frances’ young life. It begins with an intimate dinner in Hollywood.
It’s 1934 and Mary Frances is seducing her husband’s best friend. Tim is older and worldly, and encourages her passion for writing. He is also enraptured of her brazenness. “If she understood art, if she could write, if she was beautiful and smart and a tangle of other things still taking shape, what she was truly good at was this. She ate slowly, she sat back from her plate, she allowed her pleasure to show on her face. And she was willing, always, to try the next thing.”
Mary Frances is mostly happily married to Al, a poet who has been working on the same epic for almost their entire marriage, but she is restless and bored. Early in their marriage the Fishers spent three years in Dijon and that joyful time was the highlight of their marriage.
They return to Southern California, where Mary Frances grew up. Al is resentful of her close-knit family. He is resentful, too, as his career flounders, of his wife’s burgeoning success. “He could not account for how uncomfortable it made him to find Mary Frances sitting at his typewriter, but he’d felt the violation in his bones. This was serious work, not some glorified travelogue or recipe card.”
Warlick, a talented writer in North Carolina with three previous books to her name, is editor of Edible Upcountry and has honed her skills conveying the sensual pleasures of food — which makes reading “The Arrangement” a delight. As Mary Frances walks through the farmer’s market we are teased with “a dozen bluish speckled eggs” and “pillowy clouds of Gruyere.”
Mary Frances’ hunger is intertwined with her loneliness, and when she wakes in the middle of the night and stands alone in the kitchen, she discovers a crate of avocados from the Ranch. “She split one along the pit and took the saltcellar and a spoon, stood in her nightdress in the window’s blue light, scraping the flesh from its skin and sprinkling it with salt. She ate two avocados that way, and in the icebox, there was cold milk, and in the pantry, a big wedge of Edith’s cake, enough to fill her up and send her back to bed. But it wasn’t so much about being hungry as it was about being alone.”
In “The Arrangement” certain situations seem improbable, and the character’s decisions foolish, but that’s exactly why Warlick wanted to follow Fisher’s chronology closely. She surmises that no one was thinking logically and states, “All that stuff happened. ... That’s the thing about a writer like MFK — she was truly artful when it came to crafting herself on the page, and it’s that ability to streamline that I think made so many of her choices possible for her. ... She could dial into the subject at hand. I would argue that most good writers can do that. So in a way, it was her skill that sustained her.”
Mary Frances and Tim fall in love and cannot stay away from one another regardless of the risks, and while his marriage immediately implodes, Mary Frances’ marriage to Al slowly and painfully smokes out. Warlick aptly describes the pleasure and pain of a love affair where no one is free from hurt, but also illustrates the force that drives us to feed ourselves when we are hungry.
Sprinkled throughout the book are scenes of Mary Frances as an older woman whose writings are being collected for the library at Harvard. These scenes allow her to go back in time to retell the story of her one true love. In researching the book Warlick says she was interested in the deep secrecy of someone who gained acclaim through writing personal stories, yet she held so much back from view.
Going through her writings with her younger sister, Mary Frances discovers an old diary that she doesn’t want to include in the donation to the library. “For a moment it’s amazing to her that with everything she’s already written, there’s still this stack of things she cannot, will not say.”
Thus the central themes of the novel: a woman alone, hungry and struggling to find her voice, and deciding what may be expressed and what withheld. Though “The Arrangement” is about marriage and friendship in the 1930 and 1940s, the novel’s story of a woman and her work is timeless.
Reviewer Amy Mercer is a writer in Charleston.