Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead
Introduced with a quote from TS Eliot’s seminal poem, The Wasteland, about debris and things departed, and opening with the ominous first line of: “By Sunday the wedding would be over, and for that Winn Van Meter was grateful,” the reader quickly realises that Seating Arrangements is more than simply a dull tale of the modern American social elite.
Seating Arrangements is set over the weekend of the Van Meter society wedding on the fictitious island of Waskeke in New England, America. Winn, a self-important man who pins his self-worth on belonging to elite, gentlemen’s clubs, is overseeing the marriage of his pregnant daughter Daphne to Greyson Duff, while also desperately trying to gain access to the island’s selective golf club, the Pequod. They are joined by Biddy, Winn’s self-sacrificing wife Celeste, his boozed-up sister-in-law, and Livia – his other daughter who has recently had her heart broken by the son of Winn’s old social rival Jack Fenn (whom, he suspects, is the reason he is denied access to his beloved Pequod). Along with the family comes a host of bridesmaids, the mysterious Dominique, the waspish Piper and the femme fatale Agatha.
The plot line borders on the novella: the bride is heavily pregnant, the other daughter – freshly dumped and raw from an abortion – sets out to conquer one of her brother-in-laws to be, while the father is hell bent on hiding his Lolita-like and embarrassing passion for his daughter’s school friend, the beguiling but transparent Agatha. However, Shipstead neatly sidesteps melodrama and instead, her story is surprisingly moving and engaging with moments of beauty like Livia on the shore: “A tiny light appeared, like a distant lighthouse, diffusing through the fog in a soft, pale sphere and then fading to something smaller, like a firefly.” And moments of hilarity as Winn recalls Daphne’s childhood ramblings:
“‘Daddy,’ came the piping voice from across the table, ‘am I a princess?’
‘No,’ Winn said. ‘You’re a very nice little girl.’
…Reproachfully, she ate a grape and then wiped her fingers one at a time on a napkin. He returned to reading.
‘Am I your princess?’
Shipstead narrates her web of family life though multiple perspectives and in multiple voices, from the cool, calm tones of Dominique to the histrionics of Livia and the woeful wonderings of Biddy to the ridiculous obsessions of Winn. This multiple perspective also opens the door to the secretive and often exclusive worlds of her characters. For example, Seating Arrangements offers an interesting insight into the detached way fathers sometimes view their daughters. Alien to them in sex and sentiment, Win recalls that when Biddy was pregnant with Daphne: “There was this girl-child who would grow breasts and take another man’s name and sprout new branches on an unknown family tree and do all sorts of traitorous things a son would not do…he was standing at the threshold of a club that would not have him.”
Shipstead’s clever, often deliciously witty and frequently incisive work cuts through the plastic niceties and pretensions of New England social gatherings, the sniff of new money and the self-afforded pomposity of the old school elite. A brilliant read.
Seating Arrangements can be purchased online or in stores worldwide.