Olivia Reads M.F.K. Fisher's The Theoretical Foot


M.F.K. Fisher is predominantly known as a food writer. She wrote over twenty-five books in her lifetime, including Consider the Oyster and The Art of Eating. Though she wrote very little fiction and published only one novel in her lifetime, Not Now But Now, W.H. Auden is known to have said that he does “not know of anyone in the United States who writes better prose.” The manuscript of another novel, The Theoretical Foot, was found after she passed away in 1992 and was published only last year, in 2016. I did not know any of this when I picked up a copy of The Theoretical Foot. I was drawn to an aesthetically pleasing cover, depicting a very 1930s scene of a woman lounging on a chaise longue in a garden, wearing a pale pink dress – the only splash of color in an otherwise black and white scene. We’re told not to judge books by their covers, but as a very visual person, a cover – just as much as a title – will always determine whether or not I pick up an unknown book.

I’m very glad that I picked up this one. The back of The Theoretical Foot checked all of my requirements for a satisfying leisure read. It promised a 1930s setting, loose morals, summer, and artistic Americans. It also promised to be set in Lake Geneva – which I’ll admit – seeing as the lake in Geneva, Switzerland isn’t supposed to be called Lake Geneva, I thought was referring to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin – a place where F. Scott Fitzgerald’s family once summered and which I love for my own childhood memories. Alas, it was not referring to Wisconsin but to my beloved lake in Switzerland, a difference I didn’t mind too much since I’ve picked up my life and resettled on its shores.    

At first, The Theoretical Foot is a puzzling novel. It begins, and is interspersed, with passages depicting a man who is struck, with great pain, by an unnamed illness that causes his foot to be amputated. The rest of the novel is much lighter, depicting the promised group of artistic Americans over the course of one late summer day in a country home near Montreux. Perspective flows from character to character, charmingly painting a group portrait that includes young students from America, a Rhodes scholar, an acclaimed, middle aged female poet, her painter companion, and an unmarried, 30-something expat couple who bring them all together.

The novel comes close to stream of consciousness, but the interspersed narrative of the theoretical, amputated foot breaks up the narrative into somewhat organized sections. Centered around a dinner party, The Theoretical Foot feels like a cross between Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and, thanks to its abundance of flowers, food, and introspection, Elizabeth Von Arnim’s The Enchanted April.

A very peaceful read, The Theoretical Foot feels light, but is in fact the story of the calm before the storm. Set in 1938, it is laced with details that tell of war. It is the story of all that must end. What’s more, Jane Vanderburgh explains in her revelatory afterword, “Too Terrible to Bear,” that M.F.K. Fisher worked from “autobiographical impulse.” She lived in Switzerland in 1938 with her partner, Dillwyn Parrish. They hosted friends, and he was suddenly struck with Buerger’s disease that led to gangrene and amputation. They were forced to leave Switzerland shortly afterwards.

With this knowledge, additional meaning is added to every part of the novel. Trained to believe that the author is dead, I don’t always consider autobiographical detail in texts, but when the author is known for writing memoirs and different forms of non-fiction, I believe exceptions can be made. Very little of The Theoretical Foot is truly fictional, but it is, for that reason, all the more powerful.

I highly recommend the novel, perfect to read at this time of year, after a semester of hard work. It is relaxing and thought-provoking and everything I want from a leisure read.

I give it 4.5/5 stars.