Before reading Ashley Warlick’s new biographical novel of M.F.K. Fisher in The Arrangement, I needed to know more about Fisher – more than a quick google search. Dominique Gioia’s combination of prose and pictures in A Welcoming Life: The M.F.K. Fisher Scrapbook provided an easy entree to the author’s complicated life and prolific work.
Composed as though it were a family album, the one hundred ten pages offer captioned photographs of Fisher, marking her life from a young beauty to the old woman who died in her “Last House” in California. Gioia inserts pages of prose, transitioning Fisher from young girl to bride and mother, to author and finally grande dame among the elite of food writers.
It’s impossible to think of Fisher without associating her with France, and Gioia dedicates a number of pages to Fisher’s epiphany when she moved from the United States to Dijon, France as a young bride with her first husband, Al, and in Aix-en-Provence where she relocated with her two daughters. Later she was a guest at the Provence home of Julia Child.
Although not as comprehensive as Joan Reardon’s biography of M.F.K. Fisher – Poet of the Appetites: The Lives and Loves of M.F.K. Fisher, the Fisher Scrapbook condenses Fisher’s complicated life into a quick overview, leaving the reader wanting more. Laura Shapiro in reviewing Reardon’s biography for the New York Times called Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher “a lifelong series of contradictions.”
To capture a moment in Fisher’s life in The Arrangement, Warlick admittedly read all she could find about the author. Pictures in The Scrapbook document Mary Frances’s life with Al and her love affair with Dillwyn Parrish (Tim) – the focus of Warlick’s The Arrangement.
Discovering more about Fisher can be contagious and satisfying. I found Fisher’s The Art of Eating in an electronic version from my local library, and delightedly scanned through pages of many of the books mentioned in The Scrapbook – An Alphabet for Gourmets (A is for dining Alone; G is for Gluttony…), Consider the Oyster, How to Cook a Wolf, and of course her 1943 memoir, The Gastronomical Me:
“People ask me: Why do you write about food, and eating and drinking?..They ask it accusingly…The easiest answer is to say that, like most other humans, I am hungry…It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it…”
I have Reardon’s Celebrating the Pleasure of the Table yet to read, with her combination of Mary Frances, Julia Child, and Alice Waters waiting for me in France. And Gioia’s The Measure of Her Powers: An M.F.K. Fisher Reader is on my stack of books; Ruth Reichl’s introduction promises to be entertaining and Gioia has included many of Fisher’s journal articles published between books.
Fisher’s first novel – The Theoretical Foot written in 1939 – was recently discovered and published. In his comparison of Fisher’s novel to Warlick’s recent novel The Arrangement, Corby Kummer in the New York Times called The Arrangement, “a proficient, earnest and livelier book than Fisher’s.” I may have to place my exploration of M.F.K. Fisher’s real life on hold and divert back to historical fiction in Warlick’s novel.
But first, I plan to follow Fisher’s advice and bake some bread…
“…there is no chiropractic treatment, no Yoga exercise, no hour of meditation…that will leave you emptier of bad thoughts than this homely ceremony of making bread…” from The Art of Eating