By Katherine Arthaud, Contributor
Before I came upon Seating Arrangements, I had never heard of Maggie Shipstead, It seems she went to Harvard University, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and went on to become a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford. Seating Arrangements is one of three novels—along with Astonish Me and Great Circle (currently shortlisted for the Booker Prize).
Apparently Shipstead’s writing has appeared just about everywhere—the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian, the Wall Street Journal, Travel + Leisure, Departures, Outside and The Best American Sports Writing (to name a few)—but somehow, I missed it. Thankfully, the reading angels caused me to stumble upon this seriously dazzling book.
The writing is beautiful. There’s a touch of Virginia Woolf whose To the Lighthouse also takes place over a very short span of time and focuses on one upper middle class white family/close friend grouping. There is also a pinch of Neil Simon’s Plaza Suite, which I saw back when I was a child and remember as having a distinctive slapstick quality related to the many sudden entrances/exits of multiple characters. And, also, though the prose style and length couldn’t be more dissimilar, there is a peculiar and rather amusing parallel to Melville’s Moby Dick, as one of Shipstead’s principal characters, Winn Van Meter, father of the bride, has what could only be described as a monomaniacal desire to gain admittance to a fancy island country club, reminiscent of Captain Ahab’s similarly obsessive desire to slay the giant white sperm whale that once bit off his leg at the knee. (Both coveted club and Ahab’s vessel share the name Pequod.)
Seating Arrangements takes place on an island: Waskeke—which bears a striking resemblance to Nantucket, to the point that I can’t help thinking it must have been Nantucket the author was thinking of when she conjured this novel. The action revolves around the hub, or centerpiece, of a wedding: Winn and Biddy’s daughter, Daphne (seven months pregnant) is marrying upstanding, socially acceptable, white Anglo-Saxon Protestant Greyson Duff (and yes, he is the father of the unborn child).
From the start, we learn that for Winn Van Meter, his eldest daughter’s wedding is not the joyful occasion one might assume. Winn’s wife Biddy (mother of the bride) (the name says it all) is all in, but from the very start, readers are confronted with Winn’s annoyance and ambivalence. It is he who is tasked with the transporting of the iconic wedding dress from the family home in Connecticut to Waskeke, where the wedding will be held, and people just can’t seem to stop peppering him with reminders. That’s annoying enough. And then he arrives at his beloved island home only to find it filled with a plethora of wedding flowers blocking the hall and entryway and an awful lot of bridesmaids.
“Waskeke was the great refuge of (Winn’s) life, where his family was most sturdy and harmonious. To have all these people, these wedding guests, invading his private domain rankled him. … He wished that the ferry would take him back into a world where the girls were still children and just the four of them would be on Waskeke. …He would carry out his role gladly, but the weekend, now surveyed from its near edge, felt daunting, not a straightforward exercise in familial peacekeeping and obligatory cheer, but a treacherous puzzle, full of opportunities for the wrong thing to be said or done.”
And what a treacherous puzzle it all turns out to be. Like Ahab, Winn sustains a wound to his leg, though in his case, not from a whale, but rather, a golf cart that reverses suddenly into his bike while he’s riding home from tennis (so Nantucket). Coincidentally, the unapologetic golf cart driver happens to be on the staff of the much-coveted Pequod, which for some mysterious reason does not seem eager to accept Winn as a member.
Lots happens in this book. There is even a whale. Well, there are actually many whales, if you count the little embroidered ones on the groom’s brother Francis’ pants (though he is a Buddhist, sort of, and maintains that the pants are “ironic” and not as preppy as they look).
This book is comical in moments, and witty, but it is also poignant, philosophical and at times poetic. Between moments of jocundity, it glances upon timeless issues, such as parenthood, marriage, friendship, memory and what it means to pursue and to let go.
Winn is a particularly compelling character, and so is his second-born, Livia—Harvard sophomore, aspiring marine biologist and bridesmaid. Winn’s desperate quest to gain entry to the Pequod forms an ungainly parallel to Livia’s similarly desperate quest to find love. (It would appear neither is particularly good at either.) At one point, an evolving Livia watches as a massive, lifeless, beached whale is washed back to sea by the outgoing tide. “They have to let it go!” she shouts to the winds. “Just let it go!”
I also loved a scene where “an immense black Labrador,” “huffing like the respiration of a train,” “burst like a cannonball from the darkness of the lawn, bounded onto the deck, and began rushing from chair to chair, panting and wagging solicitously as though in apology for its late arrival. … The dog “ran slip-sliding around in a circle, dodging everyone who reached for him. The party was on its feet, dancing around calling the dog, wanting to pet the dog, trying to grab the dog.”
Morty turns out to be the dog’s name (someone gets hold of him long enough to read his tag). Agatha, the most seductive and unstable of the bridesmaids, tries to pet him, but Morty is not interested—”because,” her helplessly giggling and perpetually inebriated Aunt Celeste says, “he’s neutered.”
“From her chair, Dominique (another bridesmaid) said, ‘Morty didn’t like you. That’s all.’
“’It’s true,’ Agatha said, looking hurt and slurring faintly. ‘He didn’t like me. Oh, God, why didn’t Morty like me?’
“’He liked you, Winn said, leading her to a chair. (He is rather taken with this bridesmaid.) “Of course he did.”
“’Dogs don’t have to like everyone,” Oatsie (the bride’s grandmother) said.
“Livia stepped off the deck and lay flat on her back in the grass. An airplane crossed the sky, and she imagined its interior—people packed in rows like eggs in a carton, the chemical smell of the toilets, pretzels in foil pouches, cans hiss-popping open, black ovals of night sky embedded in the rattling walls. How strange that something so drab so confined, so stifling with sour exhalations and the fumes of indifferent machinery might be mistaken for a star.”
See what I mean? Gorgeous writing. A perfect blend of the comic and the deep. This book is a winner. It sings, entertains, resonates and resounds. As The New Yorker comments, “a keen-eyed rendering of America’s self-invented caste.” Highly recommend.