Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead
2012 Alfred A. Knopf
Rating: 2/5 (Fair)
“Maggie Shipstead is an outrageously gifted writer, and her assured first novel is by turns hilarious and deeply moving.” ~ Richard Russo
A romantic three-day wedding weekend on an idyllic New England island erupts in a summer blaze of adulterous longing and salacious misbehavior as the bride and groom find themselves presiding over a spectacle of marital failure, familial strife, and monumental loss of faith in the rituals of American life. Maggie Shipstead’s Seating Arrangements is a wondrous debut, a delectable social satire that is also an unforgettable meditation on the persistence of hope, the yearning for authentic connection, and the promise of enduring love.
With a three-day wedding weekend in Nashville, Tennessee, I thought this would be the perfect book to pack in my carry-on. And I was right, up to a point. Shipstead pulled me from the opening pages, but my enthusiasm waned at the halfway mark and it wound up taking me a full month to finish! However, I did discover a few passages to mark.
On summer homes:
Stepping around the flowers, he shut the coat closet and walked down the hall to the kitchen. As children, Winn’s daughters had run through the house upon first arrival each summer to remind themselves of all its singularities and unearth relics of their own brief pasts. They made joyful reunions with the canvas sofas, the insides of closets, the views from all the windows, the books on fish and plants and birds, the bowls of sea glass, the wooden whale sending up its flat wooden spout on the wall above Winn and Biddy’s bed, the flower bed where the sundial lay half concealed beneath black-eyed Susans, the splintery planks of the outdoor shower. The kitchen cupboards were thrown open so the cutting boards and bottles of olive oil might be greeted and the enormous black lobster pot marveled over. The hammock was swung in and the garage door heaved up to reveal, through cirrus whirls of dust, an upside-down canoe on sawhorses and the ancient Land Rover they kept on the island. The girls would converge on Winn and clamor at him until he unbolted and pulled the hatch to the widow’s walk so they could stand on top of the house and look out over the island.
On the Upper Crust:
The Van Meters were so charming at first. Daphne was sweet and serene. Livia was just a kid then and worshipped Dominique. Biddy was practical, brisk, kind. Winn wore bow ties and pocket squares and attacked all parts of his life with a certainty and precision that Dominique found reassuring. There were no weeds in the Van Meter garden, no unmatched socks in their laundry room. A tennis ball hung from a string in the garage to mark the exact location where the car must be parked. The milk was thrown out the day before it expired. Yet everything they did—playing tennis, cooking dinner, making friends, getting dressed—seemed effortless. Years had to pass before Dominique could see the strain they placed on themselves or, rather, what their grand goal was. They wanted to be aristocrats in a country that was not supposed to have an aristocracy, that was, in fact, founded partly as a protest against hereditary power. That was what Dominique could not understand: why devote so much energy to imitating a system that was supposed to be defunct? Any hereditary aristocracy was stupid, and Americans didn’t even have rules for theirs, not really. Lots of the kids Dominique knew at Deerfield came from families dedicated to perpetuating some moldy, half-understood code of conduct passed along by generations of impostors. But, she supposed, people who believed themselves to be well bred wouldn’t want to give up their invented castes because they might be left with nothing, no one to appreciate their special clubs, their family trees, their tricky manners, their threadbare wealth.
From a Barnes & Noble press release:
The novel begins with Winn Van Meter making his way to his beach house on an island off Cape Cod to join in the preparations for his oldest daughter’s wedding—she just happens to be seven months pregnant. So right there you know that this isn’t going to be your typical Upper Crust, WASP wedding. There are naughty bridesmaids, escaping lobsters and family matriarchs bent on maintaining control. Winn has been so intent on getting everything right—the right schools, the right clubs and even the right wife, that he can’t see that his perfect family is colliding with modern life.
Maybe I read this one too soon after The Art of Fielding. Winn and the entire cast of characters reminded me of the flawed and unlikeable characters of Harbach’s novel, both with their December lusting after May. Or, perhaps I’m not one for satire. Or a dull, pointless plot. Whatever the case, Seating Arrangements failed to impress me.