25th Jun 2012
Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead
In a world currently filled with resentment towards the privileged classes, in which the media takes delight in finding the chinks in their armour and exposing their downfalls in gory details, Maggie Shipstead’s début novel could not be better placed.
Seating Arrangements takes place over two days on the island of Waskeke, where the rigidly poised Winn Van Meter and his wife Biddy are giving away their eldest daughter Daphne in a meticulously planned and typically lavish family wedding.
The guests are exclusively well-bred and respectable figures of their tight social circle, and so must be on their best behaviour, except of course nobody is: Biddy’s sister Celeste is a drunk, the groom’s brothers all have a dig at the bridesmaids (in some cases more than one), and there’s late night disappearances and drunk-driving galore.
Perhaps the worst-behaved of them all is the patriarchal Winn, who spends the whole weekend selfishly introverting about resurfacing adolescent feuds and resentments, not to mention contemplating old flames and new temptations (sometimes more than contemplating, in fact) while Biddy fades into the background.
Being set in such a short space of time, Shipstead has plenty of room to unveil her characters’ every move and thought in careful detail.
In part, this makes the story a little slow and uneventful in places, but there are elements of vivid brilliance in the way this allows her to depict some characters unravelling, and some coming into their own.
There are some flaws to Shipstead’s story that make it one I probably wouldn’t read twice: none of the characters, for all their skilful development, are particularly empathetic which makes it a hard novel to commit to.
Another issue I grappled with is that some of the plot twists are more than a little far-fetched (I know it has happened on odd occasion, but whale explosions? Really?), but that in no way means this isn’t a well-written book.
Although this is only Shipstead’s first novel, the prose is so blissfully colourful and well-structured that at times it almost sings. This is intelligent – at times poignant – writing that makes me eager to read what she comes up with next.
Recommended for: Rainy days in, especially if you’re looking for a release from wedding planning yourself.
Other recommended reading: This Beautiful Life by Helen Schulman gives similar privileged-family-gone-wrong type reading, but not nearly so well-written as Seating Arrangements.