Book Review: Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead

2008 Iowa Writer's Workshop graduate Maggie Shipstead's new novel Seating Arrangements isn't a typical wedding novel. A cast of misbehaving and deeply flawed WASPs convene at a beach house to prepare for the wedding of their eldest daughter Daphne to one of the 1 percent's most eligible bachelors. The catch is, she is seven months pregnant with his child. Believe it or not, this less-than-conventional upperclass New England marriage is the least scandalous event in the novel.

Set in Waskeke, the fictional equivalent of Nantucket Island, Shipstead transports us to a world that seems foreign to our hyper-inclusive midwestern college town. Bloodlines that date back to the Mayflower, Skull-and-Bones style Ivy League alliances, and collegiate rivals are the order of the day. Like a modern-day Edith Wharton, Shipstead invites us to look behind the pristine, Ralph Lauren clad exterior of these characters to their tumultuous inner lives.

Winn VanMeter, the patriarch and main character of Seating Arrangements ruminates on the disappointments of a a life that seemed planned for him: Winn dreamed of sons, but instead got two daughters (the pregnant bride Daphne and the heartbroken, unstable Livia). Year after year, his college rival keeps him from an exclusive golf club (named the Pequod, with a slight nod to Melville). He dreams of furtive dalliances with his "Lolita", Agatha, the literary equivalent of a Victoria's Secret model (all of the sex appeal but none of the dimension). On top of things, Winn's garden (cared for by the VanMeter staff, naturally) is on the brink of annihilation.

Perhaps it is the inherent liminality that comes with being from the Midwest, but I found it difficult to sympathize or engage with most of the characters, least of all Winn. I found the most interesting thoughts to be from the mature, elegant Dominique, one of Daphne's bridesmaids and the only character that seems to see the absurdity in the situation. Poignantly, Dominique addresses this on an illuminating bike ride to the lighthouse:  "These people, this pervasive clique, this Establishment to which Winn had attached himself and his family, seemed intent on dividing their community into smaller and smaller fractions, halves of halves, always approaching but never reaching some axis of perfect exclusivity."

Perhaps, though, Seating Arrangements isn't trying to be such a biting social satire, though at times it certainly takes the opportunity to be so. Piper, one of the bouncing blonde bridesmaids un-ironically comments that "Waskeke is how the world should be." The jury is still out on whether or not Shipstead means to reveal the contradiction that presents itself in the idea of an American aristocracy, but perhaps that isn't the goal. There is, after all, an exploding beached whale in the novel, not to mention a few hilariously farcical moments reminiscent of Oscar Wilde.

I doubt that the intention behind Seating Arrangements was to be a literary classic, but rather a carefree summer novel to be read while wearing ratty seersucker cutoffs and drinking sangria on the patio.

If you're looking for a rollicking beach read this summer, Seating Arrangements is your best bet.

 

Review by Denise Behrens