The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own.
— Adam Gopnik

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May 29, 2016

The Theoretical Foot

A few months ago, I read (and enjoyed) a new novel that re-imagined the story of M.F.K. Fisher's romance with Tim Parrish and their time together at his home in Switzerland as World War II was beginning, and as if that wasn't wonderful enough, we heard at about the same time about this unpublished novel.  With all our conversations about the pleasures and evils of fictional lives {I'm still always hopeful about them, though I agree that the results are mixed}there was something so perfect about reading these two books at about the same time — to go from reading a contemporary author's fictional portrait of these real lives, to revisiting the setting and some of the same people in Fisher's own recognizably autobiographical fiction. {On the other hand, I think you could enjoy this book without knowing about its autobiographical connections, and I wouldn't want you to miss it. :)}

This is a much more concentrated story, taking place on the last day or two of August at La Prairie, a farmhouse in the hills above Lac Leman*, home to an unmarried American couple, Sara and Tim, Their rambling house is filled with guests:  Honor and Daniel, Sara's younger brother and sister, escaping from their summer studies abroad;  Tim's widowed and devoted sister Nan, a famous American poet, and her overly attached friend Lucy; and Joe and Susan, two American college students who have (shockingly for the time) spent the summer traveling through Europe and sleeping together. Sara and Tim are the centerpoint, in one way or another, for all of them;  the other characters look to them for approval, or advice, or support, or in Lucy's case, look at them as a terrible influence,  As they meet, eat and drink together, and spend the day before a dinner party, they imagine loves and slights and how their lives together might grow closer or fall apart.

Even though I've loved the regrettably small amount of M. F. K. Fisher's writing that I've read, and even though there's something very romantic about a long-lost novel, I never expected to fall for this one as much as I did. I was sure she would imagine wonderful meals and settings, but  M.F.K. Fisher is also incredibly good at character-drawing, and there's a lightness and humor in her writing that still doesn't let us lose sight of the looming threat of what is happening in Europe. {There are also the strange interludes about a never-identified man suffering from crippling pain in his leg — these being where the book's odd title comes from — which seem disconnected and jarring, without the autobiographical thread, and incredibly poignant with it.}

And then there's  the story of the book itself; we read in an afterword that the characters were clearly based on Fisher and Parrish, on Fisher's own siblings, and on Parrish's sister Anne, a best-selling novelist; and that it was Anne's objection to the portrayal of her friend Mary that led Fisher to decide that the book couldn't be published. But I adored awkward, lovestruck, censorious, resolute Lucy, and I can't help being very glad that it's been rediscovered.

* The fictional house is placed in Veytaux, which turns out to be {it's noted in passing} where the Chateau de Chillon is located, so there's a Byron/summer of 1816 connection, though no one in the book mentions that, that's just me. :)


JoAnn said...

Between your thoughts here and the quote in the last post, I HAVE to read this book! And I haven't read much of M.F.K. Fisher's work either.

Jane @ Beyond Eden Rock said...

When a copy of this dropped through my letter box - quite unexpectedly - a couple of weeks ago, I liked the look of it and I thought of you. I'm so pleased that you thought so well of it.

Desperate Reader said...

I'm quite intrigued by this. I have a book oh her food writing which I've been meaning to read for a long time. I think I need to read that and then get this one.

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