If you are deeply entrenched in the upper-crust of society, complete with summer houses, college clubs and country clubs, Seating Arrangements might hit a bit too close to home. Then again, even those readers likely will find Maggie Shipstead’s sharp debut novel a witty and spot-on satire that looks at the world of Winn and Biddy Van Meter and their uptight New England existence.
Seating Arrangements covers just three days in the family’s life as they prepare for pregnant daughter Daphne’s wedding at their summer home to an affable and equally well-off groom named Greyson.
But nothing is simple, and Shipstead does a fine job of introducing the many complications: Winn’s longstanding crush on one of the bridesmaids, and the other daughter’s recent abortion and heartbreak over being jilted. Mix in a variety of smaller dramas — the groom’s man-whore brother, Winn’s longing for an invitation to an exclusive club and a hard-drinking aunt — and readers get a feel for the long-held resentments and dramas that make up a family.
Winn and other daughter, Livia, are the most fully developed characters. Winn long has followed the proper script for a proper life. How proper? “He loved Biddy, indeed she was deeply lovable and loving one’s wife was a requirement of marriage. She was so entirely the kind of person he should be married to that he loved her, in part, out of gratitude for her very appropriateness.”
Ah, you can see his stiff upper lip. He is equal parts hurt and mystified that the private club, the Pequod, has not invited him to join. What has he done wrong? He has plenty of money — family and earned, like everyone in his circle — so is it (gasp!) personal?
And Livia is in many ways his direct opposite. She pooh-poohs proper and wants what she wants: a career as a marine biologist and a reunion with Teddy, who impregnated her before throwing her over. An exchange between Livia and the grandmother of her soon to be brother-in-law is instructive:
“ ‘You ought to go to law school,’ Oatsie (the grandmother) said decisively. ‘You’d make a wonderful lawyer. You have beautiful hair.’ ‘Thank you,’ Livia said. When she was old she wanted to be like Oatsie: imperious, brusque and given to non sequitur.”
And in fact, Livia’s improper behavior — at least in Winn’s eyes — is a factor in triggering his own slide toward impropriety. He breaks down degree-by-degree in a way that leads to several spectacular blow-ups.
Shipstead takes Winn to the edge, but she doesn’t push him. That will be a relief to readers who will grow to at least understand him even if they don’t particularly like what he represents.
For a first novel, Shipstead delivers a delight.
Amanda St. Amand reviewed this book for The St. Louis Post-Dispatch.