The Arrangement by Ashley Warlick

The deal-breaker for me and historical fiction is dialogue. Too stilted or too forced? See you later. Too flowery or full of period-specific-prose? Hello DNF pile. Thankfully The Arrangement by Ashley Warlick passes the dialogue test. So what about the rest?

The Arrangement tells the story of Mary Frances, best known as M.F.K. Fisher, the author whose essays about food would prove genre-defining. Living in both Los Angeles and the Swiss Alps during the 1930s, Mary Frances’s life was largely constrained by conservative social expectations about marriage, children and how a woman should occupy her time.  When the story begins, she’s married to Al, a teacher and author. But the union lacks passion and she starts an affair with Al’s friend, Tim. From there unfolds the story of the unconventional ‘arrangement’ between Mary Frances, Al and Tim (no suggestion of threesomes, just a good honest love triangle).

By today’s standards, Mary Frances’s situation would hardly raise an eyebrow (although her solution, the ‘arrangement’, probably would) but it is of course the historical context that makes the story interesting. Equally, the fact that as Mary Frances became more successful, her husband became resentful, adds interest (although this perspective favours Mary Frances and her decision to be unfaithful).

“To Al, Mary Frances’s writing would always be a hobby, like her drawing, her cooking and carving and knitting, because he did not want a wife for a rival, and really, who could blame him.”

While I liked Warlick’s writing well enough, I felt she missed opportunities – lush descriptions of food, places, lovers trysts and burning passion were absent. Perhaps this was difficult to achieve because Mary Frances reveals so much of herself in her published essays – how could Warlick extend that?

“‘Hunger,’ she said. ‘I write about hunger for all kinds of things.'”

Except that hunger fails to translate. Instead, the focus is on the slow disintegration of Mary Frances’s marriage and Al’s growing anger and frustration. The problem with this approach was that I got the impression that the story was less about her desire to be with Tim and more about the need to leave Al.

I received my copy of The Arrangement from the publisher, Viking, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

3/5 Interesting but somehow lacking.

Gibsons came from the bar in their delicate open bowls. The gin was cold, shot through with slivers of ice.”


12 responses

    • I only read historical fiction occasionally and picked up this because of the food element – but it was the food element that let me down. I was really expecting it to be more about how food and love intersected in her life but that wasn’t the way the author portrayed it. Will be interested to hear what you think if you read it.

  1. I was looking forward to this one too, living in France I often see copies of her books on the English language shelves, so this could be of interest for people living here. I think it is a challenge to bring the love for food to life and essential when writing about someone for whom that was so crucial.

    • Particularly challenging when she wrote about it so, so well and so ‘personally’. Perhaps Warlick did the right thing by leaving the food detail out and instead staying on safer ground, the relationships, but in doing so, it leaves out such a big and important part of Mary Frances’s life.

  2. She sounds similar to Elizabeth David – ground-breaking cook, controversial love life etc. Fascinating women but I totally agree with you as to fictionalising someone if they’ve left so much of their own writing behind – if you’re not really adding anything, its probably best left alone.

  3. I had seen this book and wondered about it so I am glad I read your review first. I know I would likely be disappointed with a lack of the lush food descriptions as M.F.K. Fisher did it so well. I think you are right–what a missed opportunity!

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