Tuesday, August 7, 2012

"Seating Arrangements," by Maggie Shipstead

“Seating Arrangements” (Knopf, 2012), by the first-time young (29-year-old) novelist Maggie Shipstead, is an example of books that evoke a specific, albeit complicated, response in me: I “enjoy” reading them, or at least find myself wanting to keep reading, yet feel a bit dismayed and even slightly repulsed by them. This novel tells the story of one weekend on a New England island before, during, and after a wedding. The characters are the bride Daphne and groom Greyson and their families (parents, multiple siblings, grandparents, aunt), with a few friends and others (e.g., a chipper wedding planner) on the fringes of the action. Complicated but somehow not very interesting family dynamics loom large, as do rehashings of old grievances, flirting, and random sex, with resultant jealousy and other bad feelings. But the main character and his limitations take center stage: he is Winn Van Meter, the father of the bride. Winn comes from an upper middle class family, went to Harvard, was a member of its most desirable club, is financially successful, but is still striving, still feeling he hasn’t quite made it in the social world. He desperately wants to join the prestigious Pequod Club on the island, and can’t understand why his application has been stalled for three years. His open striving, his one-sided rivalry with a neighbor with a perceived higher status, as well as his doomed flirtation with one of his daughter Daphne’s friends, Agatha, make him appear very shallow and lamentably foolish. No one in the novel does anything truly terrible, but none of them appears very admirable, interesting or likeable either. I can’t be sure whether the author expects us to dislike these characters, and is focusing on the social satire that exposes them, or if she wants us to see them as flawed but very human characters that we can all in some ways identify with. In any case, it was with a sense of relief that I finished and closed the book.

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