Seating Arrangements (Shipstead)

Seating Arrangements
Maggie Shipstead, 2012
Random House
320 pp.
ISBN-13: 978

Maggie Shipstead’s irresistible social satire, set on an exclusive New England island over a wedding weekend in June, provides a deliciously biting glimpse into the lives of the well-bred and ill-behaved.

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. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Where—Orange County, California, USA
Education—M.A. Iowa Writers' Workshop
Awards—Stegner Fellowship
Currently—Not sure where she lives (but is open to suggestions).

Maggie Shipstead was born in 1983 and grew up in Orange County, California. Her short fiction has appeared in Tin House, VQR, Glimmer Train, The Best American Short Stories, and other publications. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a recipient of the Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University. (From the publisher.)

Book Reviews
Seating Arrangements, Maggie Shipstead's smart and frothy debut novel, is set on a perfect John Cheever island—the kind where old-money families gather to drink gin and nurture loyalties. Beneath the surface of this summery romp, however, lie animosities, well-paced sexual suspense and a clash between appearances and authenticity…. Frequent shifts in point of view give the book a waltzlike rhythm, with beats of startling beauty.
Dylan Landis — New York Times Book Review

At just 28 years old, Shipstead captures the bride's forlorn sister in all her wounded disappointments…What's more surprising is Shipstead's unnerving insight into the comic-tragedy of middle-aged men, that mixture of smothered envy, aspiration and lust that mutates into irritated superiority…. The sea breeze blowing through Seating Arrangements is Shipstead's affection for these spoiled people, her tender handling of their sorrows and longings, which you'll respond to even if you don't summer on Nantucket. She's already producing the kind of humane comedy we expect from Richard Russo and Elinor Lipman…. Shipstead's weave of wit and observation continually delights.
Ron Charles - Washington Post

This is one of those rare debut novels that neither forsakes plot for language nor language for plot. It is gratifying on every scale…. The novel is teeming with the sort of casual philosophizing that encourages passage-underlining and earnest recommendation.”
Boston Globe

Seating Arrangements delightfully and poignantly upends the WASP idyll, poking holes into the studiously shabby carpets to reveal the limitations of a privileged world that revolves around the same plummy prep-school pedigrees, club memberships and summer havens…through prose that sparkles while it slays.
USA Today

This debut answers the question of whether the rich are different from you and me. The answer is yes, because we wouldn't be caught dead in slacks with whales embroidered on them. Like so many recent movie comedies, the novel takes us into the home—and then the summer home—of a wealthy New England family in the days leading up to a daughter's wedding. We have misbehaving bridesmaids and the bumbling father of the bride, who, in this case, is lusting after one of the bridesmaids. Oh, and the bride is seven months pregnant. But never mind that, her father is beside himself because he can't get a membership in the local country club. The characters are an accumulation of over-the-top WASP-like traits: Harvard educations, social clubs, old money, bigotry, family secrets, and funny nicknames like Winn and Biddy. Shipstead's yeoman prose describes the family's mishaps in cinemagraphic detail. Verdict: A hilarious, if somewhat tasteless, escapist read.—Reba Leiding, James Madison Univ. Libs., Harrisonburg, VA
Library Journal

Zestful yet acerbic…for all its madcap quirkiness, Shipstead’s adroit escapade artfully delivers a poignant reflection on the enduring if frustrating nature of love, hope, and family.

New England blue bloods suffer through three days of wedding festivities in Shipstead's debut, a bleak comedy of manners—think a modern-day Edith Wharton on downers. Winn Van Meter (Deerfield, Harvard), a banker apparently oblivious to the recession, and his stoic wife Biddy (ancestors on the Mayflower) are throwing a wedding for daughter Daphne (Deerfield, Princeton).... The one outsider, bridesmaid Dominique (Deerfield, U. of Mich., but Egyptian!!), observes their escapades with a jaundiced eye. Despite Shipstead's flair for language and scene setting, her characters are worse than cartoonishly unlikable—they are, with the exception of Dominique, yawn-provokingly uninteresting. 
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
1. “The river bears no empty bottles, sandwich papers, / Silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends / Or other testimony of summer nights. The nymphs are departed. / And their friends, the loitering heirs of City directors; / Departed, have left no addresses.” This is the novel’s epigraph, from “The Wasteland,” T. S. Eliot’s epic poem of ruin and desolation. How does this verse relate to Seating Arrangements? Why has the author elected to place it at the front of her novel?

2. Winn is obsessed with status, with matters of appearance and pedigree and joining all the right clubs. What do you think the author thinks of Winn? What did you think of him? Is he sympathetic? Does your view of him change over the course of the novel? Do you think Winn himself changes or grows over the course of the novel?

3. How is Daphne different from her father? Is her world view different or is it the same? How do Daphne’s and Livia’s values differ?

4. Discuss Dominique’s role in Seating Arrangements. How is she different from the other characters in the novel, and how does this alter the reader’s perspective?

5. Discuss the scene where the whale explodes. What do you think the whale symbolizes for the author? What do you think the explosion is meant to dramatize or represent?

6. On page 164, Biddy draws herself a bath and spends a quiet moment reflecting on her predicament and her marital expectations after Winn’s inescapably obvious attentions to Agatha following her fall from the deck. “The obviousness was what she could not tolerate. She had known what she was when she married him, had expected to be the kind of wife who looked the other way from time to time, but she had also expected him to be discreet. And he had been. She assumed there had been other women, but she had never come across any evidence of them, which was all she asked. A simple request, she had thought: cheap repayment for her forbearance, her realism, her tolerance. At times his discretion had been so complete she had allowed herself to believe maybe there hadn’t been others, but she didn’t like to risk being foolish enough to believe in something as unlikely as her husband’s fidelity.”  What is Biddy’s view of marriage? Does the author share this view? Do you? Is fidelity essential to a good marriage? What exactly is a good marriage, in your view? In Shipstead’s?

7. Aunt Celeste brings levity, acerbic wit, and a rather dark personal history to a host of subjects that are often treated sanctimoniously, among them, romantic love and the possibility of living happily ever after. What is Celeste’s contribution to the Van Meter family, and to the novel as a whole?  What is your opinion of her? The author’s?

8. In what way does the Duff family differ from the Van Meter family?  How are they aware of their differences, whether social, financial, or historical?  Do you think the author is pointing out their differences primarily, or their similarities?

9. On page 170, Winn recollects a story he was told one night at the Vespasian, while still a young man, about his grandfather’s inheritance. How is this story significant, and how has it informed the truths and myths of his family history?

10. In chapter eleven, Livia and Francis have a fascinating conversation in which the author provides several nuanced reflections on varieties of love: maternal, filial, familial, romantic. How do these ruminations embody—or shape—our perception of love and its obligations, in the world of Seating Arrangements and in the world at large?

11. Following the aforementioned conversation, Francis says to Livia, “Another reason I like you is that I think we have similar roles in our families. We’re the critical ones. We represent a threat to their way of life, a new order.”  What does he mean? How, in particular, might Livia be perceived as a threat to her family’s way of life?  Is she more or less of an iconoclast than her aunt Celeste?

12. Discuss the debacle of Winn’s bridal toast in which he equates marriage with death. Do you think the author intends the reader to perceive this as farcical or tragic?

13. Look at the end of chapter seventeen, which closes with Livia listening to her parents in their bedroom and the line, “Their door shut behind them, and she heard the murmur of their voices, the unknowable language they spoke only to each other.”  How does this recast our sense of Winn and Biddy’s marriage?

14. Discuss the epilogue and, in particular, the final image of Daphne and Winn dancing. What note does the author strike at the novel’s conclusion?  How has the novel, and the family, recovered from its various catastrophes and regained its balance after the tawdriness of the events that preceded it and the spectacularly deflating effect of the patriarch’s wedding toast?  Is this a happy ending? Do you think the author intends it to be so?

15. Is it surprising, given the novel’s themes and its central voice—an older, patrician male—to discover that its author is a twenty-eight-year-old woman?  Why or why not?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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