Seating Arrangements should have been a book I loved, but I ended up feeling ambivalent about it. It’s about a family of repressed WASPs gathered on an island off Cape Cod for the eldest daughter’s wedding. The repressed characters and the closed-off location made me expect lots of juicy family drama, and that there is in this book. Shipstead is a psychologically astute writer, for which I am grateful, but at about the halfway mark I started losing interest in these characters.
The bride and groom are Daphne Van Meter, seven months pregnant, and Greyson Duff (the characters have very apt WASP names), but while the dramatic action centers around their nuptials, the psychological hearts of the novel are Daphne’s dad Winn, some sort of banker who is obsessed with membership in clubs (golf, eating clubs at Harvard, etc) and who is infatuated with on of Daphne’s bridesmaids, and Daphne’s younger sister Livia, a college student who recently endured a breakup and more. The book is a portrait of marriage: Winn and Biddy’s, which should not be a hopeful beacon for the bride and groom to be.
Why did I lose interest at the halfway mark? I didn’t feel much sympathy for Winn until nearly the end, but even then, he wasn’t a character I really felt for. Bumbling older men trying to live an authentic life don’t always work for me. One notable exception is Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon. Also, once I found out Winn’s family’s secret, I wasn’t that interested. He just seemed hell-bent on treating his wife badly. Secondly, I knew not much was going to happen, which kind of turned me off. I don’t expect every summer-home/wedding book I read to be filled with action, but I do expect to care about the characters. I really liked Ayelet Waldman’s Red Hook Road, which I listened to a few summers ago: it’s the story of the aftermath of the death of the bride and groom en route to their wedding reception in coastal Maine. It’s a book about class, town vs. vacationers, and grief. Most importantly, it’s not about repressed WASPs. I also really liked J. Courtney Sullivan’s Maine, which centered on a few generations of women (Catholic) and their lives and a summer house in Maine. The stakes seemed higher for the characters in those two books than they seemed in this book.
I will try Shipstead’s next novel, but I hope the characters are some that I care about in the next book.
Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead
Knopf, June 2012
Source: library copy