Published by Vintage
Publication date: May 7th 2013
Seating Arrangements is the weekend long drama of the Van Meter family, gathered in their house on Waskeke Island, off the New England coast. For the family patriarch it is a time largely viewed as a disturbance to the normal stately pace of his life. The tiny minded Winn Van Meter, lives up to his last name by meting out every penny and every action as receivable or payable and he is always being shortchanged. The bride is seven months pregnant so there is no possibility of a virginal, new-beginnings theme to the wedding and his other daughter has just had an abortion and been dumped by the man she thought, in the wisdom of her twenty-one years, to be the love of her life. All of this pales in significance to the fact that Winn has still not been admitted to the local country club, an honor he feels is long overdue.
As family members and guests congregate at the house, author Maggie Shipstead introduces us to a full cast of stereotypical nouveau riche. There is hardly a real emotion among them, from the bride’s friend, Agatha, who is so empty inside she lives solely off her looks to charm men, any man, into a sexual encounter, despite the fact that she has no liking for the act, just the attention. One of her prey is Winn himself, which is not a stretch as he has been fantasizing about her for years. Then there is poor Livia, the bride’s sister, whose ignominious fate has been compounded by the fact that in a drunken fit she announced her pregnancy to everyone at their college’s social club. Despite her former boyfriend’s tepid commitment to their relationship and the ease with which he ultimately breaks it off, she is a die-hard romantic who believes he still loves her. Either that or the quintessential entitled child, with a belief that if she loves she must be loved back and if not, she has only to wait and push and the love will be reciprocated. The matriarch of this family is the matriarch of forbearance, the queen of calm, Biddy. Biddy, who has some idea of exactly what is going on around her but chooses to sail on and regard everything through the lens of propriety and make-nice.
Shipstead seamlessly slots each character into their predetermined position, arranging them with a precision and skill that leaves no work for the reader but to read and enjoy. The pages turn almost by themselves as the actions of all involved (with the exception of the oh-so well-bred Biddy) devolve. Seating Arrangements is the mirror no one wants held up, a social satire that evokes embarrassment, dismay and laughter. There are a few well-constructed moments of honesty and a character with a soul here and there, but the novel works best as it is—a subtle but knife-sharp look at people pretending.