REVIEW: Seating Arrangements

Book by Maggie Shipstead

From The Way of the World to Wedding Crashers, the high WASP wedding is an unfailingly rich canvas for social satire. Maggie Shipstead’s marvellous first novel, set over three days in a summer house off the coast of Massachusetts, plumbs the terrain wryly and slyly to surprisingly poignant effect. The betrothed couple, pregnant Daphne Van Meter and scion Greyson Duff, provide ballast as a frenetic plot peppered with fully drawn characters and frolicking scenes swirls around them. The father of the bride, Wynn Van Meter, a middle-aged banker and Harvard man, is an amalgam of smug discontent; he has “almost everything he could think to want, and yet still ambivalence bleached his world to an anemic pallor.” As festivities unfold, Wynn is shaken by two obsessions—his need to be accepted as a member of the island’s golf club and an inappropriate attraction to one of his daughter’s bridesmaids—as he grapples with truths in his past. In the balance is his long marriage of habit and mutual tolerance to the capable “Biddy,” who is busy overseeing last-minute details like a drill sergeant. On the sidelines sits a caustic chorus, including gin-soaked Aunt Celeste and Daphne’s clever, restless sister, Livia, embittered by heartbreak caused by the son of her father’s oldest rival. Of her sister and Greyson, Livia observes: the two “went together like two shades of beige, bound by a common essence of optimism, narrow-mindedness, and self-satisfaction.”

Shipstead is a sharp observer, well-versed in lobster boils, Boston Brahmin dynamics and wedding-party misbehaviour. Her ability to balance comedy with pathos is staggering, most evident in a memorable scene featuring a beached whale.

The net effect is impressive: a fresh exposé of class, fidelity and love within a tribe easy to ridicule. If there’s a criticism, it’s the focus on Wynn, whose story reveals how a life carefully drawn between the lines can leave the larger picture unobserved. But his confined, dinosaur worldview can be tedious, even claustrophic. If that’s Shipstead’s intent she succeeded, brilliantly. Let’s hope she’s working on the sequel.




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