The Arrangement: A Novel

The Arrangement: A Novel

by Ashley Warlick


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“Absolutely dazzling.” –Paula McLain, author of The Paris Wife

“Filled with food and passion...If you love historical fiction, you'll fall hard for this one.”  —

She’d made it sound as though her husband would be joining them for dinner. She’d made it sound that way on purpose, and then she arrived alone.

Los Angeles, 1934. Mary Frances is young, restlessly married, and returning from her first sojourn in France. She is hungry, and not just for food: she wants Tim, her husband Al’s charming friend, who encourages her writing and seems to understand her better than anyone. After a night’s transgression, it’s only a matter of time before Mary Frances claims what she truly desires, plunging all three of them into a tangled triangle of affection that will have far-reaching effects on their families, their careers, and their lives.
Set in California, France, and the Swiss Alps, The Arrangement is a sparkling, sensual novel that explores the complexities of a marriage and the many different ways in which we love. Writing at the top of her game, Ashley Warlick gives us a completely mesmerizing story about a woman well ahead of her time, who would go on to become the legendary food writer M. F. K. Fisher.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780143128984
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/07/2017
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 389,375
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.70(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Ashley Warlick is the author of four novels. Her work has appeared in Redbook, The Oxford American, McSweeney’s, and Garden and Gun, among others. The youngest ever recipient of the Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship, she has also received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. She teaches fiction in the MFA program at Queens University in Charlotte, South Carolina, and is the editor of the South Carolina food magazine edibleUpcountry. She is also the buyer at M. Judson, Booksellers and Storytellers in Greenville, SC, where she lives with her family.

Read an Excerpt

Hollywood, California

She’d made it sound as though her husband would be joining them for dinner. She’d made it sound that way on purpose, and then she arrived alone, lifting her shoulders in a vague wifely gesture of disappointment, and maybe she gave the impression of upset. She’d thought about this moment since she learned Gigi would be out of town. She wanted Tim’s attentions to herself for the evening, and she’d planned accordingly.

“I reminded Al a week ago,” she said, “and then again this morning. I don’t know what he’s thinking half the time.”

Tim leaned to kiss her cheek, wrapped in his smoke, his trim dark suit, his sense of ease. His hair had always been white. “Well,” he said. “Perhaps he’ll join us later?”

“He had some kind of meeting. But perhaps.”

She smoothed her hands against her skirt, rippled with electricity, and placed her clutch on the table to slip her sweater from her shoulders. Inside the clutch, she had a folded typescript, brought from strength of habit. She could be the schoolgirl, the devoted; it was, she understood, the way he met his wife.

But tonight Gigi was somewhere in the middle of the country, on tour with the other starlets at her studio, starlet the word for Gigi, bright and barely formed. She and Tim had married when she was only sixteen, and by then he’d loved her for years already, since she’d been a child. Mary Frances envied them their privacies and devotions, what she imagined to be their secret, richer life together.

She wanted a secret, richer life. She and Al had their late nights and closed doors, but there was something itchy and lonesome to her days since they returned to California, and she worried it was beginning to show. At a tea for the faculty wives, a woman with a blue winged sleeve draped into her saucer suggested mildly that she and Al had reached the time to start a family, said it as if she were reading from a textbook, and all Mary Frances could think was how there would be forty years of teas like that to come. She felt her face go hot again just thinking of it.

“Dear god,” Tim said, peering over the top of the menu. “You’re blushing. Are you nervous?”

“I never blush.”

“I wouldn’t have pointed it out if it wasn’t so surprising.”

“I’m showing off my French enlightenment,” she said. “My continental permissiveness.”

“Well. It’s very pretty.”

“Don’t encourage me. Next thing you know, I’ll be telling stories of the whores with their pastries and marc on the Place d’Armes.”

“The scandal being the pastries or the whores?”

“Their beautiful long lunches. The wide-eyed boys lined up, waiting for them to finish dessert.”
She could not believe she was blushing.

“Do you miss France?” he asked.

“Oh, yes.”

“It is not a country where people do other things while eating.”

He said this quietly, returning to the menu, and yet it had been the thing she’d been thinking for days, how busy it all was back here in California, how full to the brim with no room left over. Tim knew a little bit about everything, everyone. The electric feeling returned, humming, and her hands pressed the linen in her lap to keep still.

The waiter stood by, and Tim gave him their order.

Gibsons came from the bar in their delicate open bowls. The gin was cold, shot through with slivers of ice. Trembling knolls of aspic arrived, flounced with cucumber, yielding to their spoons, and the thick gin again, and all around them the scent of roasting meats and the chime of silver on the plate, the far-off rumblings of the kitchen more necessary and coarse, like the plumbing of a body.

She took a deep breath and delivered her announcement: she’d published the essay about Laguna.

“The sun and the sand, how it’s basically an artists’ colony. I might have stretched that, but still, an essay and three drawings, with my name beneath them.”

Tim raised his glass. “To Mary Frances Fisher. Her first publication.”

“MFK Fisher. It’s MFK Fisher.”


“It’s how my mother signs her checks. I didn’t really think about it, just sent the piece off with my initials. Later, a Mr. Hanna wrote from the editor’s office to arrange a meeting with Mr. Fisher. I thought at first they were talking about Al.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“They asked for Mr. Fisher.”

“Even on paper, I don’t believe you’d be mistaken for a man.”

She laughed. She was a beautiful woman by any standard, with her heavy-lidded eyes and red doll’s mouth, a pinpoint-sharp kind of beauty that was never so lovely as when she laughed and spoiled it, which she did often.

She said, “It’s good to finish something, or to feel like it’s finished. To get paid. Al had such trouble finding the job at Occidental, finding any kind of job in this day and age, and his poem—”

“Ah, the poem,” Tim said, exhaling.

“Yes. That.”

“The poem is always being written.”

She laughed again and leaned toward him, and he liked how she didn’t care to be quiet about it. She simply liked to laugh; she liked to eat and drink. He’d often thought she must like to do lots of things. Al was his closest friend, but the pleasure of Mary Frances’s company was entire.

“And what does Al think of MFK Fisher?” he said.

“Oh, I haven’t told Al. Yet. I haven’t told him. I wanted to thank you first, for all your help.”

And as though she’d reached across the table and laid her hands upon his face, he understood she had not told her husband about their dinner here tonight.

Tim looked steadily into his plate, the last mouthful beside his spoon. His thoughts drifted one upon the next; how could a woman who talked so much still seem so guarded? She must have gone to such trouble to meet him here alone. He studied her face and her gaze seemed to shudder for a moment between frames. There was so much she was still deciding about herself, so much he couldn’t know.

“You’re talented,” he said. “You’ve heard that before.”

She lifted her chin, giving him the long white architecture of her throat. “Oh, I could stand to hear it once again.”

And he didn’t stop to wonder why him and not her husband, because years ago his cousin had encouraged him to paint and write, not his father, not his teacher; there was no charting who sparked what in whom. 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.

Tim told her again that she was talented, that she had discipline and a grasp of language, of reality, and they were alike in that way. Al was an academic, with his muses and inspirations, Gigi was a movie actress, but the two of them— he touched her hand— they were something else. She was writing a book that wasn’t like anything else anyone had written. He knew how it must sound, but he meant it; he’d thought as much a thousand times, watching her lean forward over her notebook when they would talk about a story, or the way she leaned into her pages as she read them aloud. If it was admiration she’d come for this evening, that was easy to provide.

But too, he felt how her hand was kinetic beneath his— if he pressed, she would press back— and in this new light he wondered new things about her, if she’d been an athlete, played an instrument, if she’d bitten her nails, sucked her thumb, if she touched herself, if she ever wore perfume, his attention traveling her body, his mouth still making praise, but now he was thinking of her shoulder blade and how it fit into her back beneath the leafy sleeve of her dress. He felt her legs shift beneath the table, the conduction of her skirt across her lap; he saw her from all sides, all parts, because that was where his talent lay. Then it was his turn to take her by surprise.

“I wouldn’t say this if Al were here. Not that it isn’t true, or that Al doesn’t know it himself. But I wouldn’t say all this in front of him.”

“And if Gigi were here?” she said.

“Oh,” he said, letting go, leaning back. “I tell Gigi everything.”
The waiter brought her trout under glass. He prized the flesh away from the spine in efficient sheets, pink and curling, though Mary Frances well knew how to use a knife; it was what a waiter did for a woman, what a woman allowed in a restaurant like this. Tim’s face, cocked against his fingers; this had become fun or funny, she wasn’t sure which, his eyes sweetly blue and blank as a baby’s. After the fish, there was quail en papillote, the parchment broken and billowing the scent of dry grass, and her mouth became slick with fat and the second glass of wine. She forgot about Al and Gigi and what would be said about this evening later, and she ate.

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. Watercress with lemon, a slice of cake, bitter coffee, the last of the wine: it was late when they stood to leave, the restaurant still full of people radiant as flashbulbs on their own invented time. Mary Frances felt light-headed; there had been so many endings to this evening already, so many possible moments to postpone or back out. Now it was almost over, and she’d made her announcement, thanked Tim, and nothing had really happened next. What was she waiting for?

Tim held her sweater, smoothing the shoulders after she’d slipped into it, his fingers slow to leave her nape and the dark knot of her hair. The valet had her Chrysler pulled around and lingered at their elbows, keys ready. Tim’s hand covered hers where she’d tucked into his arm.

She thought again of the afternoon tea, the elegant parlor, the white gloves of the hostess. Someone’s wife played cello, another recounted her year in China, another her love of bridge and how they must get together and have a club. No one asked her what she liked to do, and if they had, she would have lied.

Tim leaned to kiss her cheek. “I could drive you home,” he said.

Mary Frances let her shoulder into his. “But then what about you? Who would drive you home?”
“If we only lived close enough to walk.”

“Then what?”

His face, still warm from where her mouth had been.

“Mary Frances,” he said. “I am honored Al worked late tonight.”

“He might have, yes.”

“As far as Al’s concerned, we all worked late, my dear.”

He opened the Chrysler’s door and held her hand as she dipped behind the wheel, the green drape of her skirt brushing against his pant leg. He reached down for the edge of fabric that hung below the doorframe, testing it between his fingers.

“Tim?” she said.

He said good night then, or thought he did. There had been so much wine, so much talk. Her face still tipped up at him in the car window, now smeared and dappled in the lights from the restaurant’s awning, as though she were swimming under shallow water. All that deep green dress, afloat.

Tim did not hear the valet until he touched his elbow.

“Sir,” the valet said. “Shall I bring your car?”

He was a boy, really, not even old enough to shave, an oil stain on the cuff of his jacket.
Tim clapped him on the back, flushed with energy now. He loved women; he loved his wife, Mary Frances in her deep green dress and polished mouth, the clever things she said. He loved his wife, and he was glad to be going home to an empty house. He felt like running for it.

“I’ll get it myself.”

He took off up Wilshire to the lot where the restaurant parked its cars, seeming to keep pace, for a moment, alongside the creamy fender of the Chrysler, in the wake.
* * *

Night in Hollywood kept falling, caught in the lights from the Paramount lot and thrown back across the sky, and Tim drove fast up the ridge of Mulholland, the city’s swell and tow like some great sparkling sea, dipping at last into Laurel Canyon and the bungalows knit together against the hillside in the darkness. This house belonged to a producer’s mistress, next door a dancer in the corps, the real traffic signaled by a porch light left on or out, a phone ringing once and not again, the real traffic after dark between men and their lovers, because it was never night enough in Hollywood for anything but big ideas and getting caught.

If not for Gigi, there’s no way he’d still be living here. But he’d promised her California, that she could be a movie star, and for god’s sake if she wasn’t about to play Barrymore’s secretary in his next picture. And if her star continued to rise, she would get better roles, where she would play another man’s wife, girlfriend, mother someone else’s children. He walked up the driveway of their house, squat and white, and he felt as if he were walking onto a set, that behind and beneath this place that looked so solid, people were working hard to make it seem real.

He left his keys on the table in the foyer next to the bowl of florist tulips, now ragged and sad in the time since Gigi left. He left his jacket on the table too, his tie and pants, skinned his white shirt over his head. He’d pick up in the morning, or the maid would on Friday; it didn’t make much difference as long as he was here alone.

* * *

He woke to the double beat at his bedroom door, a woman’s shoes falling from her hand into the parquet, one and then the other.

“You would not hear a person breaking into your own house,” she said.

He turned on the light. “Mary Frances? Are you all right?”

“The door was unlocked. I walked right in.”

His body sank against the pillows, all ribs and sockets, lean and not relaxed. She remembered he had fought in wars, that he was trained to be prepared for anything, and still he was surprised to see her. She had surprised herself.

She placed her clutch on the bureau, thought ridiculously of the folded typescript she still carried. There was nothing left to pretend that might make sense: her house in the hills was the other direction, her husband the other direction, and yet the evening seemed finally sharpened to its point. If she was going to be here, it could be for only one thing.

She unfastened her watch from her wrist and set that on the bureau too.

Tim stared at her. “You’re right,” he said. “You never blush.”

“I told you.”

“Dear, what time is it? You’re like the little girl, stayed up too late.”

It seemed like a dare.

“Mary,” he whispered. “Don’t.”

But she turned from him, her fingers at the catch of her dress, the untoothing of a zipper. She was hoping that this wasn’t as foolish as it felt, but it seemed the thing she had to do. If he didn’t want her, she needed to know it, and if this was bound to happen, it needed to be now, and if she was about to ruin everything, then goddamnit, so it was.

Behind her, she felt the bed shift beneath Tim’s weight, and then there came the barest tip of his touch between her legs.

She could not get her mouth around fast enough to take him in.
They will never, really, tell anyone about this. In the morning, at the beginning of next week, Tim will meet Gigi’s train at Union Station, and he’ll bring her a corsage. He’ll load his arms with her cases, cutting the flock of other girls, their bottled hair waved, each of them like orchids, petals thick and flashy, with their men, and their arms full too. He’ll take Gigi home. She’ll sit at the piano, her ankles crossed and tucked aside, and she’ll ask him what he’s been playing since she’s been gone.

He’ll see the moment before him: he has missed her, he has always loved her, and people do the most surprising things by accident. He’ll tell her a funny thing happened while she was away, and think of her washed in lights on that picture with Eddie Cantor, the heavy blond wig that concealed her body for the camera, a slave girl, a harem girl, her face lifted for her single moment in the shot, so like a racehorse, his Gigi, since she was thirteen. He’ll tell her a funny thing happened while she was away, that their friend Mary Frances appeared in his bed in the middle of the night, and when he says it, he’ll feel something new break over them, hot and bright and from above.

She’ll place her small white hand atop his and say it doesn’t matter. He’ll notice then how she hasn’t even removed her hat, that her small white hand is cool and ringless, the corsage heavy with lilies and their scent of powder, and he will not know what else to say.

In some small way, it is Mary Frances now who ate his words. She ate everything tonight, lush and drunk and wet, now she has her mouth at his ear, and she’s saying things to him about what she wants and how, and she is strong against him, he can feel her strength in her legs and her grip and in her mouth still at his ear, but he can’t make out words anymore, just something straining at its seams. Her slip drifts against him, and then she takes that, too, away, and they are naked.

There is nothing Mary Frances understands so much as nakedness, and looking down between them, she can’t bear to look into his face, so she looks where things make sense on him, the way each part fits into the next, how compact and practical, and she thinks of the waiter with his knife over the fish, what a marvel it is to see the works inside. She wants to keep seeing that in Tim. She is afraid of what she’ll think of if she stops.

Her fear must show for just a moment, because he says what, and stumbles on the rest of it, unable to finish the question what’s wrong, what is it, because all of it is wrong, but he asks anyway and stumbles, and nothing comes to her, nothing even to fill the space, which is growing now, pushing up between them. Oh, goddamnit, she thinks. Goddamn. Before she realizes it, she’s talking, and she nearly tells him she loves him before his mouth comes down again to cover hers, thank god, because it wasn’t love that made her want Tim, that turned her car around on the dark highway and brought her back to this moment, it wasn’t love, but rather an appetite’s demand: direct, imperative, true as love perhaps, but far more dangerous.

All she’s thinking now is don’t stop, don’t stop. Don’t stop.

Reading Group Guide

1. In the first chapter, Mary Frances thinks of her night with Tim: “It wasn’t love, but rather an appetite’s demand: direct, imperative, true as love perhaps, but far more dangerous” (p. 13). What impact does Mary Frances’s appetite—for sex, for food, for success in her writing—have on her life? Do you see it as a dangerous force, or a more positive one?

2. M.F.K. Fisher is one of the most admired food writers of all time. Did the fact that the book is based on events from her life influence the way you read it? Why or why not?

3. What types of struggles does Mary Frances face as a woman, both in her career as a writer and in her personal life? How does she deal with them? Do you think she fully overcomes them? Which of these issues do you see as a product of the time, and which do you think she might still face today?

4. The book’s descriptions of food are just as sensual as its descriptions of desire. What role does hunger play in the book? In your opinion, does Mary Frances seek pleasure or sustenance?

5. How does his divorce from Gigi affect Tim? Do you think he would have given himself over to Mary Frances if Gigi hadn’t wanted a divorce? Discuss how marriage is viewed by each of the book’s main characters.

6. Mary Frances and Tim’s journey to France begins in the middle of the book. How does this section act as a turning point? What is different before and after this trip? How does travel change Mary Frances’s perspective?

7. Mary Frances and Al have a very complicated relationship. Do they really love each other? Who do you think holds more power in the relationship? How does each of their writing concern their relationship? What about their childlessness? Why do you think they stay married so long?

8. The characters live in several unconventional “arrangements” in the book—Al and Mary Frances living with Gigi; Mary Frances traveling with Tim and his mother; then Mary Frances, Al, and Tim all living together in Switzerland. Are these arrangements a good idea? How do they affect the characters? How would they be viewed today?

9. The novel is set between two major historical events—the Great Depression and World War II. What effect do these events have on the story? The characters?

10. What do you make of the book’s ending? Is Mary Frances happy? Is she satisfied?

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