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Seating Arrangements (Review)

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Seating Arrangements
Maggie Shipstead, 2012
320 pp.

Book Review by Molly Lundquist
May, 2013

How someone as young as Maggie Shipstead has managed such sure-footed prose, mature insights, and sardonic humor is beyond me. For a writer in her then-late-20s, her debut novel Seating Arrangements is a remarkable feat. It would be so for a writer at any age.

The story opens as Winn Van Meter rises before dawn to head up to the family summer home on the Island of Waskeke. His eldest daughter is to be married there in three days, and the wedding party and families are already gathering.

It takes only two or three pages for us to figure Winn out: he's a practical man, efficient, slightly insecure in his NY banking job, ("pin-striped young sharks" are already circling his desk); slightly resentful of the commotion already invading his island retreat; and slightly henpecked by the women in his family, his wife and two daughters.

Overall, though, Winn is content in his life, in his quality Connecticut neighborhood, and in his quality Connecticut house with it's "thin carpets and creaking, aristocratic floors." Content, yes...except for a fleeting thought of a certain young woman still lying asleep in the island house. And with her lies trouble.

In fact, the coming weekend presents itself to Winn as "treacherous puzzle, full of opportunities for the wrong thing to be said or done"—and as the story gathers steam, Winn's fears prove correct. The wedding festivities descend into a comedy of misplaced ardor, sexual dalliances, petty jealousies, and near fisticuffs.

Undergirding the characters' relationships is the upperclass ethos. Much depends on the right schools, the right dining clubs, and the right country clubs. Hoping to get into one or all of them inspires angst...and missing out fuels resentment.

Three younger characters, however, recognize the shallowness of this lifestyle. They view "social expectations" as a straitjacket and yearn for more authentic lives. Still, we cheer Winn on. Even though we cringe at his blatant desire for status, we like him and know that deep inside lies a far better man. He knows it, too, and that's why we're on his side.

Fun, funny, and poignant. This is a terrific book club read! Lots to chew on.

See our Reading Guide for Seating Arrangements.



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