Burgs Sunday book review
Reviewed by Jennifer Poff Cooper of Christiansburg, a graduate student at Hollins University.
Two disparate families and their friends thrust together on one island for the weekend is a recipe for drama in Maggie Shipstead’s debut novel, “Seating Arrangements.” The story revolves around the wedding of Daphne and Greyson, yet they are not the main characters, their nuptials merely providing the vehicle through which other characters act and interact.
Daphne’s father, Winn Van Meter, is the primary voice. The reader waffles between sympathy and scorn toward him. The man clearly wanted a son but instead fathered two girls, and now is stuck in the middle of a gaggle of females at his second home “retreat” on the island where the wedding is taking place, yet he can have no peace amidst the pre-wedding chaos. He is stuck paying bills for hair and make-up sessions for which he sees no need, and his wife, Biddy, is preoccupied with details such as seating charts. The ultimate insult to the conservative Winn is that Daphne is visibly pregnant.
Yet clearly Winn has his faults. During the weekend, he ponders adultery with one of Daphne’s bridesmaids, obsesses about his potential membership into the local country club, and drunkenly makes a horrible toast at the rehearsal dinner. At times he angers both daughters and his wife with his insensitivity, yet he insists on pursuing his own agenda.
This is where the social satire comes into play. Winn’s agenda is all about appearances. Surrounded by northeastern mores such as Ivy League schools, exclusive fraternities, and palatial coastal homes, Winn cannot focus on his family, even for the short time period the book covers. For example, he uses a trip to the men’s room at the rehearsal dinner to hound an old rival about obtaining membership into the country club. Ironically, Winn’s very need for social approval results in embarrassment.
Other characters act as counterpoints to Winn. Livia is the opposite of her blue-blood family, with her interest in marine biology seeming off-kilter to them but providing a refreshing break for the reader. Wife and mother Biddy is steady but boring. The family and friends involved in the wedding have bit parts that enliven things. One stand-out character is bridesmaid Dominique, a foreigner who met Daphne at boarding school and looks through the lens of an outsider at the pretentiousness of the American upper class. More of her unique and honest voice would have been welcome.
The novel is a comedy of errors where the wedding is concerned. Winn nearly engages in a fight with one of the groomsmen over the boy’s tryst with Livia, bridesmaids and groomsmen are matching up in strange ways and places, and several characters have too much to drink. The calamities result in humor that blends easily with the author’s more serious insights on relationships that are naturally born of a wedding.
Some descriptive passages are too long, and there are odd moments such as that of an exploding whale which added little to the narrative. Also, none of the main characters is lovable. However, told from their individual voices the reader is at least privy to the inner workings of their minds, which helps even their liabilities make sense.
Seating Arrangements should not be rushed through as Shipstead’s clever writing is what drives the book. My favorite line is Shipstead calling Livia, sitting between two men both named Dicky, “the filling of a Dicky sandwich.” The author’s acerbic wit makes the reader thoughtfully consider the objects of her satire – in this case, the “Seating Arrangements.”
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