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Seating Arrangements Hardcover – Deckle Edge, June 12, 2012
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Amazon Best Books of the Month, June 2012: Family reunions are ripe for farce and surreal events—especially when you add a wedding to the mix. Seating Arrangements takes place over the course of a three-day weekend that culminates with the wedding of the eldest Van Meter daughter, Daphne; a wedding hastened by Daphne’s unexpected pregnancy. Add in the grudges, longings, and lusts of the rather peculiar Van Meter family, which isn’t entirely secure with its old-money status, and you have a weekend teetering on the brink of familial implosion. The relationships between characters are handled deftly, and each misstep the characters make feels as inevitable as it does realistic. The end result is clear: this is an author to watch out for. --Malissa Kent
Write What You Wonder About – An Exclusive Essay, by Maggie Shipstead
“Write what you know” is easily the most frequently quoted piece of writing advice. When I’m asked to describe my book (which, for the record, I’m extremely bad at), I usually mumble something about a dysfunctional WASPy family having a wedding on an island, and people either nod sagely and affirm, “Write what you know,” or ask, puzzled, “I thought you were supposed to write what you know?”
It’s an odd window on what other people think I know, and, to be honest, I don’t always know what I know. I’ve spent seventy percent of my life in California, including years zero to eighteen when I lived in beachy, suburban SoCal and was utterly oblivious to the existence of New England prep schools and social clubs.
Twenty percent of my life has happened in Massachusetts, including eight months on Nantucket, where I wrote the first draft of Seating Arrangements. (Let it be said that I do know about Atlantic resort islands, especially, and unhelpfully to my book, in the winter.) Miscellaneous, irrelevant locations get the last ten percent.
Depending on how literally someone interprets the commandment to write what you know, here are some questions that come up: as a Californian, how much can I really know about upper crust New England families like Van Meters? I’m not married, so how much can I really know about weddings? I’m not a sixty-year-old man, so is it wise to write from the point of view of one?
But I have an easy out. It’s that I don’t happen to be a believer in writing what you know. The idea of a world where people only write what they know sounds flat, grim, and unimaginative to me. I don’t believe in writing in ignorance, either.
Instead, I try to write what I wonder about. When I lived in the East, I wondered about the people I met who knew how to dress for garden parties when they were still in their teens, who had vast webs of generationally intertwined family friends, whose style of dress was crisp and culturally regimented and was in no way inspired by surfers or skaters or movie stars grocery shopping in velour sweatsuits. I wondered what it would have been like to go to boarding school, to use “summer” as a verb, to know how to sail.
For a while, I thought maybe these people could be categorized and diagrammed as neatly and pleasingly as in The Official Preppy Handbook. Then I met my friend Bailey’s grandmother, a formidable grand dame who was one of Jacqueline Kennedy’s bridesmaids. At first glance, she seems like the distilled essence of High WASP. She has a gift for fun of the drinking-and-dancing variety, a plummy voice, memberships in clubs of the long-established and selective variety, a house on the North Shore of Massachusetts full of ancestral oil paintings and classic wallpaper patterns, and a house in Maine full of hardback thrillers and ingredients for Bloody Marys. But what I loved about this particular woman was her surprisingly fantastic closet, which resembled what might have happened if the wardrobes from Dynasty and The Love Boat had been shut inside the Copacabana to breed in isolation for several decades. Behind the classic wallpaper, she kept a pirate’s horde of sequins, jewel-tone silks, shoulder pads, towering heels, heaps of bedazzled dresses and sweaters, and one very special zebra-print jumpsuit with matching belt.
In the end, I set about writing a character, Winn Van Meter, who doesn’t wonder much about anything and so misses out on a lot. I know him, even though he doesn’t exist. He spends his life in pursuit of correctness and an illusory social status, but there are a few zebra-print jumpsuits, metaphorically speaking, lurking behind his staid exterior. We all have our secret sequins.
Guest Reviewer: J. Courtney Sullivan
J. Courtney Sullivan is the author of the New York Times best-selling novels Commencement and Maine. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, the Chicago Tribune, New York, Elle, Glamour, Allure, and Men’s Vogue, among others. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Seating Arrangements is bursting with perfectly observed characters and unforgettable scenes. This gorgeous, wise, funny, sprawling novel about family, fidelity, and social class is the best book I’ve read in ages.
Beautifully set on an exclusive island off the coast of Cape Cod, Shipstead’s debut sparkles with all the enticements of summer: you can practically smell the sea salt and see the ferries coming into harbor overflowing with weekend guests and their brimming bags of sunscreen and champagne. With an irresistible mix of wit and tenderness, the novel tells the story of what happens when the illustrious Van Meter family—Winn, the obtuse and perennially optimistic patriarch; his wife Biddie, and their beautiful daughters Livia (recently jilted by the son of Winn’s oldest rival) and Daphne (the bride, seven months pregnant)--plan a wedding at their beloved island retreat. Shipstead captures a family on the brink of implosion, brilliantly contrasting the novel’s placid setting with the hilarity and chaos that ensue when Winn embarks on a dangerous game of seduction with his daughter’s most lissome bridesmaid.
Maggie Shipstead is a born novelist, and Seating Arrangements is both wickedly smart and impossible to put down, a true summer pleasure.
“Maggie Shipstead is an outrageously gifted writer, and her assured first novel, Seating Arrangements, is by turns hilarious and deeply moving.”
—Richard Russo, author of That Old Cape Magic
“Seating Arrangements is bursting with perfectly observed characters and unforgettable scenes. This gorgeous, wise, funny, sprawling novel about family, fidelity, and social class, is the best book I've read in ages.”
—Courtney Sullivan, author of Maine
“A pitch-perfect debut from a master storyteller, Seating Arrangements is a rich and deep work: a smart, consuming novel that manages also to be delightfully funny. A romp of a book, with whales and weddings and wealth, it is, at its heart, a warning against the empty seductions of status and exclusivity.”
—Justin Torres, author of We the Animals
“Smart and frothy…Beneath the surface of this summery romp lie animosities, well-paced sexual suspense and a clash between appearances and authenticity…waltzlike.”
—New York Times Book Review
"A sophisticated summer romp...Shipstead's weave of wit and observation continually delights. I wouldn’t be surprised if someday she trades her Lilly Pulitzer for something from Joseph Pulitzer."
"Whipsmart and engaging...the best kind of smart beach read."
“Dead-on delightful…a champagne-fueled, saltwater-scented comedy of upper-crust New England manners and mores.”
—National Geographic Traveler
"Irresistible [and] joyously good."
—Daily Mail (UK)
“Elegant, delightful…Shipstead’s sentences simmer and crackle on the page.”
—San Francisco Chronicle
“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.”
—The Boston Globe
“Funny and dark and poignant—sometimes all at once. Shisptead is a gifted storyteller whose richly realized characters and sweetly flowing prose coalesce into a tale that is by parts sweet and sharp, humorous and heartbreaking. It’s an auspicious debut by an undeniably talented writer.”
—The Maine Edge
“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.”
“Vibrant prose and moments of keen insight.”
“Delightful…Shipstead writes with clarity and confidence, nimbly dropping into multiple characters’ heads, giving each a distinct voice and point of view but always with great wit and heart. Seating Arrangements brims with sharp observations about love, lust, family, and the real meaning of marital bliss.”
—Entertainment Weekly, A- review
“Impressive…Shipstead’s characters…feel totally true to life.”
—People, Style Watch
“Shipstead seems at home in the Waspy milieu of private schools and their preening, privileged attendees…a keen-eyed rendering of America’s self-invented caste, its members’ revelry in an illusory ‘axis of perfect exclusivity’ and their pitiful strivings ‘to be aristocrats’ in a country that was built on anti-aristocratic conventions.”
—The New Yorker
“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.”
“By turns poignant and laugh-out-loud funny (thanks to Shipstead’s gimlet eye and terrific comic timing), Seating Arrangements is a tremendous debut.”
“A wedding held at a family retreat off the New England coast explodes into a weekend of deliciously scandalous behavior.”
—Parade 2012 Summer Reading Guide
“Told from the wry perspective of the father of the (very pregnant) bride, this spicy debut tracks the goings-on at a Cape Cod wedding where endless drama unfolds.”
—Real Simple, Addictive Summer Novels
“In Shipstead’s talented hands this WASP wedding weekend becomes the perfect occasion for a pointed social satire that is both a comedy of manners and a thoughtful reflection on the things that matter most in life—family, marriage, and status. At once laugh-out-loud funny and emotionally compelling, Seating Arrangements marks the arrival of an exceptional new voice.”
“A wonderfully juicy, frothy and delightful story of a family reunited on a small New England island during a wedding…Shipstead executes the genre perfectly.”
—Cape Cod Times
“[Shipstead’s] book places a magnifying glass over classic New England upper-crust culture…excellent character development and family intrigues galore. Whether reading Seating Arrangements is like looking into a mirror or peeking through the window, the gin-soaked escapades are difficult to turn away from.”
—The Phoenix (Portland, ME)
“A delicious comedy of manners, set on a New England island, that has fun with all things rich, all things wedding and all things inappropriate.”
—Asbury Park Press
“[Seating Arrangements] is really good, funny, and so involving. It’s so well observed, and I couldn’t believe it was written by a 29-year-old author, and that she’s not from a Northeastern WASP family. She captured all these people who are in a different generation from her.”
—R.L. Stine, author of Goosebumps series
“This debut novel is just as full of startling insights as it is of voyeuristic intrigue.”
“Told from the perspective of the father of the bride, this novel encompasses family, scandal, humor, and a heck of an East Coast beach house that we want to go to! You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and you’ll cringe at the raw family dynamics that comprise this social satire.”
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Top Customer Reviews
Seating Arrangements takes place during the course of one weekend, and is set on a small island off the coast of Massachusetts. It's a special weekend, as Daphne, the eldest daughter of the main character Winn Van Meter, is getting married. Families, friends, and neighbors all travel to the island for the wedding and pre-wedding activities. Most of the story is from Winn's perspective, and is a carefully choreographed series of cliches and stereotypes. Winn is a straight-laced, trying too hard WASP, feeling competition from younger men at the bank where he works, worried about the cost of the wedding, consumed with a golf club membership, loves but is bored with his wife, lusts after one of his daughter's friends--the list goes on and on.
All of the characters surrounding Winn are equally shallow stereotypes, making it difficult to engage in the plot. If characters could be said to be indifferent to their own narrative, then that is what we have in Seating Arrangements. Nothing remotely humorous happens in ths book, reading it is like listening to a stilted conversation on a bus for three hours. The plot is dull and unoriginal, the characters are walking cliches, and at times, this is just uncomfortable to read. Don't invest your time.
Winnifred VanMeter is a pretentious, social-climbing jackanape, who occasionally likes to force himself on his wife at the end of a long day. Winn, who is likely scarred by having a girl's name (he might as well have been named "Sue"), is patently unlikeable and lusts over his daughter's whorish friend and bridesmaid, the unfortunately named Agatha. The most outstanding characteristic about Agatha is her dirty feet and scuffed up shoes, discussed in multiple tiresome ways throughout this steaming pile of novel.
Winn and Agatha try to tryst in the laundry room during the first night of the wedding weekend - only for Winn to find out that Agatha and the dryer have something significant in common. That stills his ardor until he walks into his garage a day later with his daughter Livia and finds Agatha and the sociopathic brother of the groom, Sterling (whom Livia had banged the night before in an effort to get over one man by getting under another), in flagrante.
Meanwhile, Winn's daughter, Livia, upset and depressed by her family's unending public discussion about her abortion on top of being dumped by her father's rival's son, is pursued by the equally sociopathic brother of the groom Francis, who reenacts Carrie by soaking her in whale guts and blood. (I'm not going to lie - this was described in such detail it actually turned my stomach. And I'm someone who can eat Taco Bell on a regular basis.)
Other characters pop up here and there - the charmless drunk Celeste, boring Biddy, unattractively anorexic bridesmaid #3 (so meaningless that I can't even recall her name, only that she was so skinny as to be hideous), the groom, his parents (Dicky and Mrs. Dicky - the 12 year old boy in me snickered), the pregnant bride Daphne (who was described as having no interest in others - I can assure you, I returned the favor when it came to her character), and the adventurous Dominique. Dominique - a status-bucking renegade - could have been interesting if we had just learned a bit more about her.
Instead, we waste several chapters flashing back to good ol' Winnie's college years, when he was just as much of an uppity DB as he is currently. The biggest blow for Winn is when (SPOILER ALERT) he learns that his grandfather was the object of affection for a pedophilic older rich man who ultimately became his family's benefactor by bequeathing his mill to his victim. (Well, there's one for victims' rights!) And not only that, Winnifred is named for him! Double blow! AND he was told all of this by his current squeeze's dad, accompanied by a request to please dump his daughter. (And we've got a KO! Couldn't have happened to a more deserving jerk - hell, you're thrilled for poor Ophelia of the "buggy eyes" (as described by Winn) to get away from this guy.)
We also spend an interminable amount of time with Winn complaining about his inability to get into the Pequod Golf Club. News flash dude - if you're on the waiting list for 3 years, you aren't getting in. Winn blames this on the Fenns' (neighbors with a bigger house, better pedigree - the wife is Ophelia (Winn's ex), hubs is a guy Winn blackballed in the supper club at Hahhhvahhhd, and son is father of Livia's aborted fetus) instead of his own craptastic personality. After Winn is mowed over by a Pequod golf cart (I was hoping he'd go into a coma) he tries to leverage this to blackmail the members into letting him in. Mr. Fenn tells Winn that it's impossible for the club to accommodate an ego of his size - there'd be no room for the other members! Kidding...actually Fenn tells him in a polite way that his personality sucks and to move on, no one likes him. And oh yeah, Winn would hate the club anyway. Riiiiight.
The book closes with a completely inappropriate toast given by Winn, while under the influence of massive quantities of wine and painkillers. He then takes off with Agatha (remember her? dirty footed trollop?) and breaks into the Fenns' house where he has a Viagra moment (e.g., he FORGOT his Viagra) and can't close the deal, breaks off their weather vane, and rolls off their roof. Again, by the grace of God, he survives. (WHY can't he DIE??)
Daphne is understandably upset at her idiot father and his speech and won't look at him while he dances with her. Boring Biddy assumes that Winn had an affair with Agatha and is shocked to find out that he's never cheated on her (who knows why this is a surprise given he's an impotent jerk). On the other hand, he's shocked that his two-pump chump act isn't satisfying to her. Livia talks to Teddy and realizes that he's not all he's cracked up to be, pretty much the way most college romances go.
And then finally, FINALLY, this travesty of a book ends. Mother of God, it sucked!
Here's an example of some really bad writing from this book: "The lobsters had turned the clownish red of death." Blech. Bad writing. it abounds in this book. Not everywhere, but it's there. And it strikes you, and you go, "What the...?" and then you move on, try to shake it off, but you're still like, "What kind of stupid metaphor was that?" or "Jeez, she's painting the lessons with a really heavy hand," but still you keep reading.
I didn't like this book. The protagonist is a stunted, old-fashioned, prudish guy - who happens to have chased a ton of tail - who is blind to his immaturity and selfishness, and who thinks he should be entitled to what other people have. I hated him.
I didn't really like anyone else in the book. WASPy and elitist, and not very well-behaved, all the characters were bland and obnoxious at the same time.
Don't bother reading it. You'll be bored. The weekend is boring. Even with an affair, and people falling off roofs, and whales exploding, it reads like nothing happens, and it's just blah. BLAH. Seriously