Review: Seating Arrangements, Maggie Shipstead

I like attending other people’s weddings but would hate to have to organise one myself.  I’ve seen too many weddings where the two people at the centre of the drama look haggard and stressed out – call me a softie, people often have, but I do still think that a wedding should me a celebration of two people’s commitment to each other amongst their close family and friends – not a circus.  The bedlam that can spring up around weddings has always made me vaguely think that it would be nicer to just elope. Seating Arrangements takes an often funny, occasionally toe-curling and even poignant look at a family going through a wedding.

The chapters focus on alternating characters but the true protagonist is Winn Van Meter, the would-be patriarch to the clan.  He really reminded me of Willy Loman of Death of a Salesman and indeed there are certain parallels to that play within in the story.  It’s that faith in ‘things’ and that frantic, desperate need for approval through external success criteria.  As an English student, I was taught by one tutor that talking about the difference between ‘appearance and reality’ within a novel or play was cliché but in this novel it really is a big deal.  Winn Van Meter is a 59 year-old man who has been married for thirty years to Biddy, they have two daughters, Daphne and Livia.  They are wealthy, they are travelling to their family retreat on the New England island of Waskeke for Daphne’s wedding to a very suitable boy.  Yet behind this veneer of satisfaction, there is animosity, sexual tension and insecurity and unhappiness.

Winn has called his Waskeke house ‘Proper Dews’ yet he is still searching for his.  The grass is literally greener over at the Pequod, the golf club which will not admit him.  Daphne, the bride-to-be, is seven months pregnant and is unrepentant about it.  His other daughter is depressed and bitter after having had an abortion.  To add insult to injury, Livia was knocked up by the son of Winn’s nemesis, Jack Fenn.  To make matters even more complicated, one of the bridesmaids seems to be trying to tempt Winn into adultery.  And now they’re all stuck on the island together.

Very evocative writer

What really caught me about this book was the very precise description.  This is something that is very hard to describe in a review and yet it was the quality which I remember most strongly.  There’s a very graceful style to the prose, it’s well choreographed.  Each day is chronicled in the lead up to the wedding, but it is clear that the discontent is not new, it has always been around, long-buried or ignored but never forgotten.  Winn has placed so much emotional weight on having been a member of the Ophibian, a fictional Harvard club, he believes that it truly has meaning.  He thinks that denying Jack Fenn membership must have launched Jack into a lifetime of bitterness towards him.  He believes that dumping Ophelia Haviland must have broken her heart and ruined her life.  Strangest of all, Winn thinks that once he joins the Pequod, he will be truly satisfied.  But there’s always another club, another society – my step-family are heavily keen on golf clubs and the social gymnastics which tend to be involved has always seemed ridiculous to me.  Winn is more angry that his daughter got drunk and made a spectacle of herself at the Ophibian, his beloved old club which is ‘very important to him’ than he is concerned about the fact that she has had her heart broken by the boy she loved.

Gilmore Girls – similar class of people

A lot of the attitudes behind this book are very foreign to me – the whole American ‘old money’ ‘blue blood’ ideal doesn’t tend to translate over to the United Kingdom particularly well.  I did watch The Gilmore Girls though when it was on so I understood roughly what the characters were saying such as when Winn asked , “Where did he prep?”  These are privileged people – I read one Goodreads review which took a dim view because of quite how superficial their concerns were but that irritated me – I’ve never been keen on disparaging another person’s unhappiness because their situation is different to mine.  WASPS have problems too …

Nevertheless, Winn seems to have been ill-suited as a father to daughters, he does not understand them, he wanted boys, he feels an outcast in the family.  My mother’s family is heavily dominated by women, but my lovely grandfather loved all of us, he never minded not having gotten ‘the wee footballer’ as my phantom uncle is commonly known.  I ended up having a kind of contempt for Winn as the book progressed.  His family history unfolded gradually and yes, it was upsetting and particularly so for somebody quite so bothered about appearances.  Still.  He had a wonderful wife – Biddy was so lovely – he had so much around him.  He had defined his life by others’ approval and I didn’t feel convinced that he had learnt enough by the end of the novel to change that.

My favourite character was Livia even though there were times when she was impossible.  Emotionally limping after being dumped by Teddy Fenn and reeling after terminating her child (made worse by the fact that her sister got pregnant at around the same time), Livia is not easy to get along with.  But still, she has been through something horrific.  Getting pregnant, getting dumped, getting humiliated – having your ‘friends’ throw an ‘Emancipation Party’ for your boyfriend post-break up for the purposes of hooking him up, having your father tell you that was just a nice thing that Ophibian members did for each other … I actually thought that Livia was coping remarkably well with the situation.  When she is finally able to talk with Teddy, I thought that their final conversation was very well caught.  Livia believed that he had understood her, that the two of them had belonged together – but he tenderly explains that no, he never had and that that had been their problem.  Perhaps Livia would have been happier to have given birth to a little Fenn child.  But more likely not.

Seating plan template …  drama, drama, drama.

In the background was the happy couple, Daphne and Grayson but neither of them were invited to the spotlight.  Despite being what was pulling all of these characters together, their inner lives are muffled – Winn stumbles across them kissing, we know that they live together, but they are two private people.  One of the bridesmaids, Dominique (not the one who is after Winn) notes that Daphne is discreet about other people’s business – I actually ended up liking Daphne a lot too.  While everyone else is clattering about feeling uncertain and making a mess, Daphne and Grayson are just focussed on getting set for their marriage and their new baby.  Daphne does not concern herself over the seating plan – she lets Dominique and Biddy fuss over making sure that no exes are sitting in proximity.  Daphne does not worry about the Fenns, or the Duffs, or the Pequod.  She only becomes emotional after her father’s inner turmoil spills over into a truly horrific wedding toast.  But Daphne is a sensible girl, Winn watches during that the wedding as she ‘walls herself up with her happiness and left him outside’.  Grayson should count himself lucky.

The ending pages deal with the first dance of the wedding, which is fairly metaphoric about the whole book.  Winn dances with his daughters, realising that he does not truly know either of them, that he cannot know what it is that they are seeing.  It’s a sad and lonely life for the man who realises that he has not been all that he should have been.  Like Willy Loman, he has put his trust in that which is not real.  Perhaps it would have been a more savage read if Shipstead had killed him off at the end of the novel.  Still, I’m glad that she didn’t.

I don’t think that I’ve quite made the humour of this novel clear – it’s very dry.  I don’t know much about Shipstead, but I got the impression that in this, it felt like she was poking fun at a social stratum that she knows well.  There is the clearer slapstick ridiculousness of the lobsters and Livia’s deadpan impersonations of her frequently-divorced aunt to the darker but still humour-filled observations on marriage and life.  Given that this is a debut novel, Shipstead is clearly one to watch.  This was in many ways a hopeful story, at grasping for grace after a life poorly lived.  I wished contentment for Winn and Biddy, I wished happiness for Livia and … I had thoughts for all of the characters, which to my mind implies that Maggie Shipstead has done a wonderful job with this book. Recommended.

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Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead
Published by HarperCollins UK on May 24th 2012
Genres: Fiction, Literary, General
Pages: 320
ISBN: 9780007425235

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