Winn Van Meter is heading for his family's retreat on the pristine New England island of Waskeke. Read more...
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Winn Van Meter is heading for his family's retreat on the pristine New England island of Waskeke. Normally a haven of calm, for the next three days this sanctuary will be overrun by tipsy revelers as Winn prepares for the marriage of his daughter Daphne to the affable young scion Greyson Duff. Winn's wife, Biddy, has planned the wedding with military precision, but arrangements are sideswept by a storm of salacious misbehavior and intractable lust: Daphne's sister, Livia, who has recently had her heart broken by Teddy Fenn, the son of her father's oldest rival, is an eager target for the seductive wiles of Greyson's best man; Winn, instead of reveling in his patriarchal duties, is tormented by his long-standing crush on Daphne's beguiling bridesmaid Agatha; and the bride and groom find themselves presiding over a spectacle of misplaced desire, marital infidelity, and monumental loss of faith in the rituals of American life.
Hilarious, keenly intelligent, and commandingly well written, Shipstead's deceptively frothy first novel is a piercing rumination on desire, on love and its obligations, and on the dangers of leading an inauthentic life, heralding the debut of an exciting new literary voice.
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2012-04-30
- Reviewer: Staff
Vibrant prose and moments of keen insight lighten an otherwise lackluster debut in this comedy of manners set during the days preceding a wedding. Daphne Van Meter is getting married at her family’s New England summerhouse, her advanced pregnancy a blight on the festivities for the older WASP set. Her father, Winn, feeling increasingly irrelevant at work and in the eyes of his family, toys with the idea of adultery, though his real passion is gaining admittance to Waskeke island’s exclusive golf club. Daphne’s younger sister Livia, unable to recover from her recent abortion and breakup, makes halfhearted attempts to find a rebound interest as the weekend progresses. Also on the scene is Biddy, Winn’s solid if unspectacular wife (she falls asleep during sex and only wants Winn to be discreet if he cheats). The characters are either bland or unsympathetic, and with little plot, the book lacks energy. Readers looking for a thoughtful beach read may find moments of distraction in Shipstead’s linguistic dexterity, but the glacial pace and dull characters will likely put them to sleep. Agent: Rebecca Gradinger, Fletcher & Company. (June)
An intimate social satire
The premise of Maggie Shipstead’s debut novel sounds like a typical beach read: A family gathers at a New England summer home for a wedding weekend and—surprise, surprise—nothing goes as planned. But Shipstead’s writing is so precise, her characters so nuanced, her plot so unexpected, that Seating Arrangements is anything but a breezy poolside read.
One thing that sets the novel apart from the pack is its narrator. We don’t get the story of Daphne Van Meter’s wedding from the bride herself, or from her troubled, envious little sister Livia, as one might expect; rather, it’s the middle-aged father of the bride, Winn Van Meter, who leads us through the twisting, turning events of the weekend.
Winn loves his daughters and his wife, but he doesn’t understand them. In fact, he doesn’t seem to understand much. He is obsessed with outward appearances and his social status—to the detriment of his family, his marriage and his mental health. Shipstead completely inhabits Winn and all his neuroses, painting a devastating picture of a man in crisis during what should be one of the happiest times of his life. This is social satire at its best, a novel examining a group of people who seem to have it all and are, for the most part, completely falling apart. The bride is beautiful and happy, but she’s also heavily pregnant. Livia, the maid of honor, is too busy nursing her own heartbreak to fulfill her sisterly obligations.
Seating Arrangements is not a novel about a wedding. It’s a novel about family, marriage and what it means to belong. Like J. Courtney Sullivan in Maine or Galt Niederhoffer in The Romantics, Shipstead places deeply flawed characters in an idyllic setting and creates an unforgettable world.