- Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead
- Hardcover: 320 pages
- Publisher: Knopf (June 12, 2012)
- ISBN-13: 978-0307599469
Who and what is the book about (back-of-the-book blurb): An irresistible social satire, set on an exclusive New England island over a wedding weekend in June, Seating Arrangements provides a deliciously biting glimpse into the lives of the well-bred and ill-behaved.
Winn Van Meter is heading for his family’s retreat on the pristine New England island of Waskeke. Normally a haven of calm, for the next three days this sanctuary will be overrun by tipsy revelers as Winn prepares for the marriage of his daughter Daphne to the affable young scion Greyson Duff. Winn’s wife, Biddy, has planned the wedding with military precision, but arrangements are sideswept by a storm of salacious misbehavior and intractable lust; the bride and groom find themselves presiding over a spectacle of misplaced desire, marital infidelity, and monumental loss of faith in the rituals of American life.
Where and when does it take place: Seating Arrangements is set in the early 2000s on a resort island off the coast of Massachusetts. I don’t know if “Waskeke” is modeled on Nantucket or Martha’s Vineyard (or a hybrid of the two); in either case, Shipstead takes the stereotypical and hones it to a sharp and stinging perfection.
What would I say to a friend who asked me about it: The first 40 pages or so of Seating Arrangements had me thinking “this is over the top – this is truly a farce, exaggerating every weakness and show of poor behavior.”
And then, it clicked. I got it. By focusing on these oversimplified characters – caricatures, really – Shipstead allows us to laugh at their foibles while we observe their hidden motives, their weaknesses and insecurities.
The protagonist, Winn Van Meter, is a social climber — yes, he comes from “old money,” but not as much of it as he would like. He doesn’t fit in with the true Blue Bloods, despite his attempts to look and act “entitled.” Van Meter’s silver spoon may be a bit tarnished, or it may simply be silver plate. The other WASPy characters – with in-character names like Biddy, Greyson, and Sterling – have their own demons to fight.
A friend of the bride’s is a refreshing change of pace. Because the boarding school she attended with Daphne was far from her home, Dominique was taken under the Van Meter wing as a child. Ditching the Pappagallos and matching headbands shortly after graduation, Dominique’s sense of self and authenticity is a grounding feature of the novel.
Why did I read it: We highlighted this novel in a bookshop newsletter when it was published mid-June, but I’ve only now had the chance to read it, during our vacation on Cape Cod (which included a day trip to Nantucket; I spotted a lot of Winn Van Meter’s acquaintances — whale pants, seersucker, and Lily Pulitzer abound!). It was the perfect setting in which to read Seating Arrangements, but Shipstead’s detailed descriptions of character and place will take you away to Waskeke whether you read it on the beach, in the city, or during a snowstorm.
A favorite passage: This excerpt, beginning on page 78, Dominique (who is both an observer of the Van Meter mishaps and the type of friend who would hold your hair back when you’re getting sick instead of saying “I told you so”), muses about her relationship with the Van Meters. It’s like she’s the only one who can see that the emperor has no clothes:
The Van Meters were so charming at first. … 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 … 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 believe themselves to be well bred wouldn’t want to give up their invented castes because then they might be left with nothing, no one to appreciate their special clubs, their family trees, their tricky manners, their threadbare wealth.
What else can I add: The theme of “public persona vs. personal truth” is popping up in several books I’m reading lately. Is it a trend? Is it just one theme of many in the book, but I’m somehow more receptive to it? Hmm, Dr. Freud, let me lie hear on the couch and you can analyze it ….