The Story Behind THE ARRANGEMENT by Ashley Warlick
I am good in the kitchen, self-taught over cookbooks and back issues of
Bon Appetite, a product of living in small towns with no
restaurants, of traveling, and generally being stupid or fearless enough
to try anything myself, especially if friends are coming for dinner.
Iíve always thought this abiding pursuit was linked to my life as a
novelist, and maybe something of what balances it. Because it takes
years to complete a novel, but I can pull together meal in six hours and
still transport you, to Spain or your grandmotherís kitchen, still
please and satisfy, make you want more. Thereís such an echo of
storytelling in cooking well, a plan in a recipe that works its way into
a full sensory experience, that same transformation of the
two-dimensional words on the page to something else altogether, in your
brain and your body.
To these ends, I keep a paper clothes hanger on my desk that I took from
my ex mother-in-lawís summer house. She rents the house in August, and
someone had scribbled a recipe on the liner of the hanger for drinks
enough for a crowd: twenty-four limes, sugar by the cupfuls. From this,
I can imagine an entire evening.
Itís really more than the recipe, or the paper hanger, or the fact that
I found it in the far back of the closet when I arrived to visit my
kids, who spend five weeks in the summer with their dad. Itís the fact
Iíve known this house for half my life, and yet it isnít mine. One month
a year, another couple fills the closets with their clothes and drinks
trendy drinks, whatever suspended-state routines bring order to a
vacation long enough to coast toward real life. Iíve found other things:
a single false nail, slipped beneath the cushions of the couch,
prescription bottles left behind for parts of a man that have let him
down in the bedroom, mismatched Legos and plastic trucks that tell me
this was not always the case. I know where to look here, and I can make
this marriage up from what I find.
Ten years ago, reading Joan Reardon's biography of MFK Fisher, Poet
of the Appetites, I had the same feeling when I came across the
chapter that speculated on the events that led Mary Frances to trade her
first husband for her second, that I had found something much bigger and
richer than the space it took up on the page.
The facts of the matter are spare. Mary Frances and Al Fisher had been
married for five years when they met Tim and Gigi Parrish. Gigi was a
starlet and Tim much older, a painter and a novelist, a restaurateur.
The two couples fell in together, and it was with Timís encouragement
that Mary Frances began to write, literally for him, little essays sheíd
read aloud at dinner parties, that they would talk about later, as
The biography tells it like this: in an interview late in her life, Gigi
Parrish said that sometime in the fall of 1934, when she returned from
two weeks on tour with her troupe of starlets, Tim met her at the
station and confessed that a funny thing had happened while she was
away. Mary Frances had invited him to dinner. Heíd assumed Al would be
there, and he was surprised when Mary Frances arrived aloneónot half as
surprised as later, when she appeared at his bedroom door, took off her
clothes and invited herself into his bed.
I had previously known MFK Fisher as elegant and arch, the owner of
enviable, delicious prose. I read How To Cook A Wolf in college,
her collection of kitchen essays about how to survive wartime rations,
but truly a book about survival itself. Also, Consider the Oyster,
a lush meditation from the biological (oysters change their sex
throughout their lifetimes) to the gastronomic, including recipes, but
not focused there. Fisher wrote about the pleasures of eating, not just
the beauty of food, but what it means to satisfy our hungers. I loved a
biographical version of her so brazen and driven as to throw herself at
what she wanted.
But too, Tim had told this story to his wife, and it paints him in a
particularly helpless light. As I began to imagine the landscape of his
marriage, I had to wonder what he hoped would come of his confession.
According to Gigi, it didnít matter; sheíd fallen in love with another
man, someone she later went on to marry and live with for the rest of
her life. What was Tim trying to gain back with his story of Mary
Francesís seduction, or cover up?
Marriages fascinate me. My parents have been married for some 45 years;
I divorced after 20. I know so few people who are consistently happy in
their marriages, and even the ones that seem built on all the good
things can still plummet frighteningly quickly. And yet there is
something so elastic in this relationship founded on choice.
When I began this book, my marriage had just barely survived the writing
of my last. Some of the things that went wrong were foundational to our
relationship, tensions about money and family. But others seemed to rise
out of the practice of spending so much time inside the heads of
characters I didnít talk about, the building of a double life.
Through this lens, I began to see the grander shape of what MFK Fisher
never revealed about her relationships with Al and Tim in her own
essays, and what Reardon, bound by her sources, could never have
described. She was learning how to write, how to want something
dangerous and what it would cost. She was learning exactly who she was,
and that was wrapped up in all kinds of ambiguities. I knew it would
make a hell of a novel.
The dinner between Mary Frances and Tim became the opening to The
Arrangement, and eventually a kind of map for the shape the novel
would take. I wanted to see attraction develop from both charactersí
points of view, but the transitions needed to be smooth, a conversation.
I wanted to understand the consequences of Mary Francesís actions but
stay tight to the moment at hand, something that later lent itself to
the leaps forward in time, this organic veil of storyline revealing who
she would become as a result of what was happening now. Again and again
as I drafted this manuscript, this first scene between Tim and Mary
Frances seemed to have the key to all my locks.
There were many, many locks. Itís a presumptuous thing to try and bring
one of your literary heroines to life on the page, to inhabit her
thoughts and feelings, and this novel took me ten years to complete from
the time I began thinking about it. But I began with trying to imagine
the kind of self-confidence, self-control that might make her think she
could make the choices she made and live through them. I imagined the
weeks upon weeks of electricity she generated, between herself and Al,
and Tim, her typewriter and her kitchen, and I just kept thinking how
she made it for herself, all the while making her way as a writer.
And I loved the fact it began with a meal.