Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead (Knopf; 320 pages; $25.95).
There are weddings, and then there are weddings. Destination weddings. Weekend weddings. Lavish weddings. Small weddings. Weddings where drunken bridesmaids sleep with equally inebriated groomsmen. Even Shotgun weddings where no one has to guess “is she or isn’t she?” The wedding of Daphne Van Meter features a little of all of the above in Maggie Shipstead’s strong, hilarious debut novel Seating Arrangements, part social satire and part serious examination of a man’s mid-life crisis.
Shipstead is a California girl who sets her story on an exclusive New England island. Although a wedding occurs in her tale, Shipstead’s story is not really about the ceremony itself; Shipstead is concerned with the events and details that lead up to the big day.
Daphne’s wedding is the social event of the season. Daphne, though, can lie back on her beach towel and relax. She is no blushing bride; Daphne is seven months pregnant. Both Daphne’s parents and the groom’s parents pushed the couple into walking down the aisle pronto. If his daughter had a child “out of wedlock,” Winn Van Meter “would die.” If it had been up to Daphne, though, she would not have gotten married so soon. “If I really had my way,” Daphne confesses, “We’d wait a while so I wouldn’t have to be pregnant in the pictures.” More than anything else, Daphne does not want to be a “fat bride.” However, she acquiesces to her father, because she knows how much appearances matter to him.
Winn is truly the novel’s main character. Winn Van Meter is a 59-year-old, Harvard-educated, wealthy WASP enduring a mid-life crisis. As Shipstead writes, “people get weird at weddings,” and that is certainly true of Winn.
Shipstead, a 29-year-old woman, ably gets readers into the head of Winn using flashbacks and streams of consciousness. She uses Winn to satirize New England’s upper-crust culture, but her writing turns serious and somber when we realize how alone Winn feels and how he just wants to be liked.
Seating Arrangements, in my view, is a metaphor. Seating charts at weddings are complicated affairs. Just ask Winn’s wife, Biddy, who agonizes over the seating arrangements. Preparing them means enemies and exes may find themselves seated next to each other, although this is to be avoided at all costs. Some guests will be downgraded to the “leftovers table.” Winn prepares his own kind of seating arrangements in this novel as he takes stock of the people in his life: how they have rewarded him, remained loyal to him, disdained him, slighted him, and excluded him. Nearing sixty, he places them in certain niches, exactly where he thinks they should belong.
Above all, Winn appreciates exclusivity; he yearns for it, in fact. For that reason, he “summers” on private Waskeke island. Only the very best will do for him and his family. Tradition is important to Winn, just as it was imperative to his father. While at Harvard, Winn joined the elite club called the “Ophidian.” He worries an old rival, Jack Fenn, who did not get into the Ophidian, may be blackballing his acceptance into the “Pequod,” a privileged golf club. “People,” Winn knows, “will go to great lengths for revenge on those who have excluded them.”
Worst of all, Winn fears his exclusion from the Pequod may have something to do with his younger daughter, Livia. Since he spends a great deal of time worrying over what is correct and proper, he cannot help but wonder if his daughters are disparaging his good name. Just look at Daphne, seven-months pregnant on her wedding day. A similar, yet different, thing happened to Livia. While at Harvard, Livia got pregnant by her boyfriend Teddy Fenn, the son of Winn’s would-be nemesis. Winn went through the roof. In the end, Livia got an abortion and Teddy broke up with her. Winn worries this incident will forever bar him from gaining acceptance to the Pequod. How he wishes for sons when he thinks of all his daughters have put him through.
Despite Winn’s preoccupation with appearances, he contemplates a fling with Agatha, one of Daphne’s bridesmaids. Agatha is in her twenties and woos and is wooed by Winn. For Winn, Agatha is like “the fountain of youth.” He describes any romance the two would have as a “May-December” one. Winn feels as though Agatha truly likes him and understands him, qualities he appreciates, especially in a young, beautiful woman. He and his wife have grown apart, and he idolizes Agatha just as much as he idealizes her. Agatha, though, has a roving eye and roving hands.
Hilarious scenes such as when Winn and Livia catch Agatha with a groomsman inflagrante delicto contrast sharply with the novel’s serene island setting. Hoopla abounds in this tale, whether it is when Winn gets run over at the golf course and wonders if he can take advantage of the accident to get into the Pequod or when the groom’s brother causes a dead whale’s carcass to explode. The whole novel makes for good social satire. Shipstead’s intention is to make your mouth fall open agape while reading what someone said or did.
Interestingly, one of Shipstead’s characters also responds to the Van Meters in this way. With uncanny and masterful ability, Shipstead shifts perspective in one chapter, showing how a situation or issue looks different based on one’s viewpoint, age, gender, and class. Nowhere is this more apparent than when Shipstead writes for Dominique, a bridesmaid from Egypt. Dominique has known Daphne and her family for years. She knows how the Van Meters and others like them work: “They were set up to accommodate feigned ignorance, unspoken resentment, and repressed passion the way their houses had back stairways and rooms tucked away behind the kitchen for the feudal ghosts of their ancestors’ servants.” Dominique was “surprised Winn had not leapt from a bridge or gutted himself with a samurai sword after his daughters got knocked up back to back.” ”Daphne’s condition,” Dominique thinks, “would be grandfathered into the boundaries of propriety by the wedding, but Livia’s phantom pregnancy, the missing buldge under her green dress at the front of the church, was a void that could not be satisfactorily filled in and smoothed over.” In her view, Winn “had the Pequod to take his mind off things” and “set out on his quest for membership like Don Quixote without a Sancho.”
Dominique’s reaction is our reaction. She is, by turns, fascinated by them and repulsed by them. So are we. But, Dominique does her duty. She will be the supportive bridesmaid and keep her judgments to herself. Perhaps Dominique’s character also symbolizes Shipstead herself. Shipstead graduated from Harvard and met hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Van Meter-like families. Maybe Dominique’s take on the Van Meters was exactly what Shipstead thought of the New England families she came into contact, obsessed with social status, elitism, and correctness.
Seating Arrangments is THE read of the summer, but this is no fluff piece. Shipstead constructs a many-layered story in the same way a baker creates a layered wedding cake or a designer sews a wedding gown. There are layers upon layers, and we must peel them back chapter by chapter. There are debut novels, and then there are debut novels. Messy, disorganized jumbles lacking cohesion. Unrealized characters with nothing to drive them. Settings that fall flat. A plot that isn’t. This is not one of those debut novels.