For her first Father’s Day, my daughter gave me an engraved keychain that says, “A girl’s first love is her father.”
Listening to The Arrangement, the image of the keychain kept popping into my head time after time. I couldn’t help but feel like the young woman at the center of his novel desperately needed a positive father or father figure in her life. And that she was seeking out the father figure in all the wrong places.
Natalie is a struggling art student at a prestigious school in New York City. Struggling to pay rent and keep up with her studies, Natalie slowly finds a mountain of debt piling up on her and with seemingly no way out. Estranged from her father (he left when she was ten) and not having the greatest relationship with her mom and step-dad, Natalie is averse to taking out a student loan to finish her course work since her field of children’s book illustrator may make it difficult to pay off said loans.
Natalie finds the solution in a friend from class who seems to live in the lap of luxury as a sugar baby to rich men who want beautiful women to be seen with them around town. For a fee, a Sugar Daddy can take these women on expensive dates, trips, etc. It’s not even really prostitution (at least as Natalie justifies it to herself) because the transaction is about companionship, not physical intimacy. (But make no mistake, there can be physical intimacy if both parties desire).
Natalie sets up a profile on a sugar babies website and meets Gabe, a wealthy older gentleman, who lists himself as single but is actually still married to his college sweetheart and has a teenage daughter. Gabe is stepping out because his wife has just survived cancer and he’s not quite as attracted to her in the same way. Also, her sex drive has diminished, and divorcing her would be costly both financially and socially.
Gabe and Natalie hit it off, despite Nat being kind of a mess on their first several dates. Nat’s old boyfriend is stalking her around town and her roommates aren’t exactly the most supportive people in the world. Natalie is attracted to Gabe’s ability to comfort and protect her and Gabe is attracted to Natalie’s need to be comforted and protected. Before long, the two have entered into an arrangement where Gabe gives her an allowance and she agrees to be his girlfriend of sorts. And then lines start to become blurred, as Natalie starts to catch feelings for Gabe and starts assuming he’ll make her a regular part of his life.
When Gabe is forced to break things off, Natalie doesn’t take this news well and goes full-on psycho, making one bad decision after another, up to and including flirting with Gabe’s pansexual daughter.
The Arrangement reads like a warning to all dads of little girls out there to make sure you’re doing your job as your daughter’s first love properly for fear that she could end up like Natalie. Natalie begins her journey as a waitress in a bar, hooking up with the bartender Miguel on a semi-regular basis. Alas, Natalie feels this is a friend’s with benefits situation while Miguel thinks they’re building something. It doesn’t end well and lead to Natalie being fired when she tries to steal from the bar till, justifying the decision because the scorned Miguel is costing her tips by not filling her drink orders.
The irony comes that just as Nat tosses Miguel aside for becoming too emotionally involved, Gabe tosses her aside for becoming too emotionally involved. Of course, Gabe has a few reasons for this, more than he’s telling Natalie.
Both Gabe and Nat aren’t exactly what you’d call sympathetic characters. Both are deeply flawed and deeply delusional. I couldn’t help but shake my head multiple times as each one made a poor decision after a poor decision — not only to enter into a relationship but during it and after it was concluded. The book starts out with an interesting tease of Nat calling her dad for help with bail after she’s accused of murder and then flashes back to everything leading up to it.
No one is going to say The Arrangement is great literature. But it’s some damn entertaining reading/listening — at least up to a certain point. I will admit the second half of the book finds Robyn Harding piling on twist after twist to the story of Gabe and Nat and it doesn’t always ring true or authentic. And, honestly, once we get past a certain point, I couldn’t help but wonder just when Natalie was going to be arrested and who she would be accused of murdering.
And yet, the story did give me some things to think about. For one thing, it made me feel sorry for Nat, who is clearly crying out for a father figure in her life and keeps choosing all the wrong ones. It did make me think about my role in my little girl’s life now and as she grows up. I hope and pray that my actions or inactions don’t drive her to follow a path similar to Natalie’s.
The Arrangement is a pure pulp melodrama that kept me intrigued for its run and, quite frankly, gave me a bit to ponder and think about. Again, not great literature, but a great piece of chewing gum from the brain.