Book Review: Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead

Book Review: Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead

If you grew up in the 1980s, at some point you probably laughed your way through The Preppy Handbook by Lisa Birnbach:

I know my friends and I got countless hours of amusement from this tongue-in-cheek guide to living the preppy lifestyle… which also makes charming fun of those leisurely folks, hanging out at the club or by a picturesque beach, clad in pastel colors, Topsiders, and various and sundry items embroidered with whales or other sea creatures. It was a world we could envision, occasionally mimic, but never actually wanted to go to (and probably wouldn’t have been allowed in, anyway).

So when I read Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead, I was immediately reminded of my youthful perusal of Fair Isle sweaters and matching headbands. While we merely observed the preppy phenomenon, the characters in this book actually live it! The clothes, the beach houses, the golf clubs, the casual approach to wealth, the unerring sense of what “our” type of people do — and what just isn’t done — it’s all here, in this amusing and occasionally touching tale of a family’s eventful wedding weekend.

The bride’s sister gives us a pretty accurate snapshot of the meaning of marriage in this slice of society:

Daphne and Greyson were perfectly suited, both for each other and for the institution of marriage. It was a match both appropriate and timely; they were two people joined by their desire to join. They were pleasant, predictable, responsible, intelligent, and practical, not full of fiery, insupportable passion or ticking time bombs of impossible expectations. What they had a was a comfortable covalence, stable and durable, their differences understood, cataloged, and compensated for. They were perpetuating their species.

And again, in describing the groom’s parents:

The Duffs went together like two shades of beige, bound by a common essence of optimism, narrow-mindedness, and self-satisfaction. Daphne and Greyson were the perfect next generation.

As father of the bride, Winn Van Meter is the family patriarch, rallying the troops at their Cape Cod island getaway for his beloved (and very pregnant) daughter’s wedding to the scion of another well-to-do family. As the various relatives and bridal party members assemble, socialize, drink heavily, eat lobsters, and generally get up to all sorts of questionable behavior, secrets are revealed, long-held beliefs are challenged, and some hard truths must be faced.

Winn himself is the central figure in the book, and is an interesting character. Grandson of a self-made man, he’s oh-so-afraid of being perceived as not fitting in. He’s got the wealth, sure, but he never quite manages to pull off the insouciant ease of the more established of his class. Consequently, Winn spends an awful lot of time worrying about appearances. He’s appalled remembering how his father sent him off to Harvard with a new gold watch, when what was really de rigeur for the boys of the ton was a shabby, “oh, this old thing?” type of timepiece. His island home is chicly disheveled, and he feels offended by a rival’s new, elaborate island home under construction, which simply shouts money and status. Winn views his rival Jack’s obvious affection for his developmentally disabled daughter as showing off, and even considers Jack’s son’s enlistment in the army to be social posturing.  He remonstrates with his daughters quite a bit about what’s done and what’s not done, to the extent that when his younger daughter has an emotional breakdown at the exclusive Ophidian Club, Winn’s first reaction is horror that the event happened at the club, not horror over his daughter’s pain and distress. Winn is desperate for membership in the private golf club on the island, and can’t quite accept that he’s just not up to snuff.

The overarching WASP-iness feels stifling at times. The stiff upper lips, the endless cocktails, the lobster dinners and tennis matches — it’s all such a regimented way of life, at least as it’s presented in Seating Arrangements. Characters fall into neat categories, for the most part: The drunken, oft-married and Botoxed aunt; the flighty blonde prep school roommate who’s all giggles and cluelessness; the older brother of the groom whose decadent ways have already started revealing themselves in a too-early paunch; the younger brother who claims to embrace Buddhism while not actually espousing any Buddhist practices. Then there’s Dominique, the Egyptian-born friend of the bride, with exotic looks and an exciting career, who ends up coming across as an all-wise outsider in a way that borders on ethnic stereotype.

It’s all rather funny, as well. Two of the groom’s brothers explain their clothing — a seersucker suit and pants with whales — as being “ironic” wardrobe choices. The family goes into a tizzy over how to handle a sick lobster. Various drunk people are constantly falling down, making a mess, and blundering through the house with abandon.

Relationships come together and unravel, and quite a lot of differing approaches to marriage and what constitutes marital bliss are contemplated in Seating Arrangements. The bride, Daphne, is probably the least fleshed out of the family members. We don’t ever get to know her, other than knowing that she’s blissfully in love and delightedly pregnant, practically buoyant with joy throughout the wedding weekend.

Seating Arrangements was an enjoyable read for me, but fits into my reading category of “I liked it, but I didn’t love it”. Perhaps it’s just that these characters’ lives are so foreign to me, or that so much of what Winn obsesses about can be described as “first-world problems”. The plot of Seating Arrangements is engaging and moves along nicely, and the writing is clever, but ultimately it didn’t feel like a very substantive read to me. I’d recommend this book as a good diversion, but don’t expect a deep exploration of the meaning of life.

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