Blending fact and fiction, this historical novel covers nine eventful years in the life of legendary food writer M.F.K. Fisher.
All the ingredients for a lively, literate page-turner are here: a beautiful, talented protagonist; lush settings; illicit sex; mouthwatering food. But the novel falls flat—ironic considering how buoyant and lyrical Fisher’s own writing is. Beginning in 1934, the book is mostly about the unraveling of Mary Frances Kennedy’s marriage to Al Fisher, a college professor, and her affair with—and eventual marriage to—Dillwyn “Tim” Parrish, a painter and sometime writer who edited and encouraged her early work. The narrative, which faithfully follows the outlines of Fisher’s life, moves between California, France, and Switzerland, where the Fishers briefly lived with Parrish. The two men were close friends, and there is plenty of agonizing on the part of the adulterous lovers on the right course of action to take with regard to Al, who has problems with sexual and professional performance. Perhaps as a result, the novel often feels gray and despairing. Another problem: Fisher’s life is not exactly unexamined. In addition to a gastronomic memoir, she published many books—in which she figured prominently—as well as journals and correspondence. Since her death in 1992, two biographies have appeared. That doesn’t leave so much for a novelist to imagine. Warlick, author of three previous works of fiction, contributes invented dialogue—some of it stilted—and fairly graphic sex scenes, which don’t really deepen our understanding of the characters. She also tells the story from multiple perspectives, which proves distracting—better to have homed in on Fisher’s point of view.
Warlick is not a bad writer, and this novel is an ambitious effort. In the end, though, it never makes us care about its star-crossed trio.