"The Arrangement" by Robyn Harding
Growing up without a father, you become particularly attuned to all of the issues you are supposed to have as a fatherless daughter.
Based on knowledge I accumulated from the oh-so-informative MTV news briefs of the late 90s, I know that there’s a statistical probability that I’m a teen mother.
Probably a high school dropout.
Definitely with some daddy issues.
And, more likely than not, a habitual drug user.
But, the thing is, I am none of those things.
Instead, I’m a virgin-till-college people pleaser who graduated from high school with an honors diploma, from college Summa Cum Laude, and — aside from a reliance on ibuprofen — has never had much of a taste for drugs.
Statistics are really just a map of probabilities and averages and I can fully accept that I might not be on the right side of the majority – thankfully.
One factor that undoubtedly influenced how I turned out was that I, unlike the narrator of this Robyn Harding novel, had a mother who chose me.
Forsaking all others – except for our cadre of cats and our aged African clawed frog.
I never had to feel unwanted.
Almost like… a mistake.
But our protagonist in The Arrangement, Natalie, did.
When her mother remarried, producing two new children — both more perfect than her first, failed, attempt — Natalie felt as if she had been relegated to little more than a second class citizen.
So, when the opportunity presented itself to flee from Washington state to New York City – about as far as you can while staying in the contiguous United States – Natalie took it, latching on to her scholarship to art school. And she did so without thinking too much about how she would make up the difference and bring in enough cash to do luxurious things — like keeping a roof over her head and eating.
After arriving in New York, Natalie manages to scrape by with some waitressing jobs. But she is hardly bringing in enough money to live comfortably — or, at all, even — in notoriously expensive New York City.
Just as she’s about to hit rock bottom, she discovers a potential out — albeit one that will require that she compromise her values and bend even the most liberal of her rules. Through a friend at art school Natalie discovers a new, potentially lucrative source of income: becoming a sugar baby.
Rich, older men will pay handsomely for your company. You don’t even have to sleep with them, her friend assures her.
Despite her serious reservations, Natalie feels that she had little choice but to give the rather unorthodox arrangement a try.
Though she’s nervous, it doesn’t take long for the butterflies in her stomach to calm as, seemingly serendipitously, she meets Gabe.
Kind, handsome and successful, Gabe is the type of man any woman would desire. And, to Natalie’s delight, he wants her.
Suddenly, it seems like all that was once going wrong is now going right.
But it won’t last long because things aren’t as they seem in the sugar bowl. And as Natalie quickly comes to find out, she has gotten in way over her head.
In this novel, Harding tackled a salacious and engaging topic. And she did so thoughtfully and beautifully, resisting the likely temptation to create a black and white dichotomy and, instead, navigating a turbulent sea of shades of gray.
Regardless of the preconceived notions readers bring to the text, Harding’s narrative structure and strong characterization will almost certainly leave people questioning right and wrong, finding morale ambiguity where they previously felt certainty.
Most notable was her characterization of Gabe.
Gabe is a smarmy businessman who thinks he can use his flush bank account to buy his way into women’s vaginas. Given this, he isn’t really what you would normally consider a likeable character.
But, as I read, I started to if not like him at least feel for him.
In fact, when it became clear that Natalie was not going to abide by their agreement and she stepped, uninvited, into his real life, I actually felt bad for him.
I couldn’t help but think that they had, both of them, two consenting adults, agreed to this arrangement. And, though untraditional… and unethical… and…gross… Natalie shouldn’t have agreed to it if she couldn’t abide by it.
You see… there I go… sounding like a horrible person.
What’s gotten into me?
Effective writing, that’s what.
At the end of the day, anyone could have made you like Natalie – a small fish in a giant pond who simply wasn’t cutting it in NYC — but it takes true skill, true narrative finesse, to make you feel for Gabe.
Another strength was the use of a narrator that lacked dependability.
Much in the vein of The Girl on the Train, Harding manufactured a narrator that was as unreliable as she was alcohol-soaked.
Adding to the complexity of the text, the reliability of Harding’s narrator wasn’t always problematic.
No, her reliability dwindled in direct proportion to the depth with which she dove into the world of sugar daddies and babies.
This allowed for a depth and dynamicness that made her protagonist seem more realistic and, as a result, increased the degree to which we, as readers, cared about the outcome.
Sexuality as a currency, I must admit, is a brave topic to tackle – particularly right now, with the “Me Too” movement raging and inexorably changing the way we view that complicated dance between the genders.
In less skilled hands, a novel on the same topic could be seen as a censure of the actions Natalie took — an exercise in slut-shaming. But the way that Harding tackled the topic wasn’t exploitative. It was thoughtful and engaging and decidedly deeper than you would expect from a book marketed as a thriller.
The Arrangement is yet another win from an author who is dependably producing strong, engaging, unputdownable thrillers with distinctive voices and uncommon depth.
It easily earns 5 out of 5 cocktails.
I am really surprised by how easily I found myself rooting for the… bad?... guy here. Have you ever read a book that left you hoping the character on the wrong side of morality won out in the end? Tell me about it in the comments, below, so I can add it to my TBR.
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