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Seating Arrangements (Vintage Contemporaries) Paperback – May 7, 2013
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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.
“Beneath the surface of this summery romp lie animosities, well-paced sexual suspense and a clash between appearances and authenticity. . . . Waltzlike.” —The New York Times Book Review
"The novel I've been recommending this summer to anyone, female or male, who's looking for the trifecta—a good story that's beautifully written and both hilarious and humane." —Maureen Corrigan, NPR
“This gorgeous, wise, funny, sprawling novel about family, fidelity, and social class, is the best book I’ve read in ages.” —J. Courtney Sullivan, author of Maine
“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.” —Ron Charles, The Washington Post
“Seating Arrangements delightfully and poignantly upends the WASP idyll….Sparkles while it slays.” —USA Today
“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
“Shipstead doesn’t just follow in [John Updike and Jane Smiley’s] footsteps; she beats a distinctive and dazzling path of her own. The world has found a remarkable, humane new voice to explain us to ourselves” —Allison Pearson, author of I Don’t Know How She Does It
“Whipsmart and engaging.” —O, The Oprah Magazine
“A wickedly clever tragicomedy of manners that unfolds with the plotting of a juicy mystery and the sharp eye of someone only too aware of the subtle, seemingly pointless class distinctions within the one percent.” —Slate
“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.” —The New Yorker
“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 Boston Globe
“Precise, skilled, quick-witted, and warm-hearted.” —The Millions
“Dead-on delightful. . . . A champagne-fueled, saltwater-scented comedy of upper-crust New England manners and mores.” —National Geographic Traveler
“A wise, sophisticated and funny novel about family, fidelity, class and crisis.”—Marie Claire
“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
“Elegant, delightful. . . . Shipstead’s sentences simmer and crackle on the page.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“[A] mordant, ferociously clever comedy of manners.” —The Guardian (London)
“Delightful. . . . Seating Arrangements brims with sharp observations about love, lust, family, and the real meaning of marital bliss.” —Entertainment Weekly
“[A] spicy debut.” —Real Simple
“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
“Wonderfully juicy, frothy and delightful.” —Cape Cod Times
“A delicious comedy of manners . . . that has fun with all things rich, all things wedding and all things inappropriate.” —Asbury Park Press
“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.”—Booklist
“[Shipstead’s] book places a magnifying glass over classic New England upper-crust culture. . . . 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)
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.Read more ›
Seating Arrangements takes place in New England around a summer wedding. Winn Van Meter and his family open their summer home to wedding guests and the chaos they bring. With one daughter, the bride-to-be, pregnant and another recently jilted, plus a house full of bridesmaids, the novel could have easily take a turn toward the type of frivolous hilarity and romance that so many dime a dozen female-audience novels take. Seating Arrangements is instead an exploration of social rules and unfulfilled desires in a witty, pitch-perfect novel, which twists its way through the relationships between father and daughter, lover to lost lover, and youth and experience.
If you pick up a summer read this year, make it this one. The characters are rich and deep, the story is unexpectedly interesting inside a tried-and-true plot and the writing is wonderful. The type of novel that you begin reading and immediately lose yourself in.
1. Shipstead writes beautifully, cleverly, and brilliantly. I described this book to my publishing friends as Moby-Dick-as-wedding-crasher meets "Rachel Getting Married," the Nantucket version. But that doesn't even begin to do the book justice; Shipstead (who is up for a National Magazine Award in fiction for her short story "La Moretta," which I highly recommend googling and reading in one deep, desperate, devastating breath) works magic here. The characters are delightfully flawed, deliciously inept, morally compromised, but, ultimately, forgivably -even lovably- human. If you are a fan of contemporary American literary fiction in the vein of "A Visit from the Good Squad," "The Marriage Plot," and "Freedom," this should be your next read. I laughed out loud, marveled at exceptionally vivid descriptions (Shipstead sure can turn a phrase), stayed up until the wee hours eager to discover what delights awaited me in the next chapter, and re-read favorite passages aloud to my partner- surely all signs of an excellent book.
2. I imagine some readers picked up "Seating Arrangements" hoping for a breezy feel-good summer beach read with a likable female heroine overcoming personal struggles and ultimately finding love and/or inner peace. Which "Seating Arrangements" most certainly is not, thank god. Shipstead is a literary talent whose dazzling prose and convincing character development belie her youth (wait, you mean a young female writer can have success writing about a middle-aged white guy? Crazy!).Read more ›
Most Recent Customer Reviews
This story happens during a weekend, just three days of a family celebrating the weeding of the eldest. Read morePublished 16 hours ago by ana ovejero
Different, but I liked it. Enjoyed all the characters and how their emotions were woven together. An awakening to real love.Published 15 days ago by Nancy McKenzie
The good: parts of this novel made me laugh and the dialogue was spot on. That's about it.
The bad: this novel is completely plot driven; the characters never change or come... Read more
The exciting, excruciating meld of personalities is what caught my attention to this well-written book about marriage and class structure. Read morePublished 1 month ago by nononsense
How long does it take a person to realize that the things you think are important, the hallowed window dressing of what you perceive as necessary, in truth do not matter in the... Read morePublished 1 month ago by KA McNamara
I didn't even finish reading it, it was so poorly written, which is very rare for me....I tried picking it up several more times to give it another try, but still felt the same,... Read morePublished 1 month ago by suzy q
Have it 3 stars bc it kept my interest, mainly bc I thought something good would happen. I felt a bit depressed reading about these characters.Published 1 month ago by WFKJ
Seating Arrangements was just boring to me. Essentially the book is: Ch 1. I'm the Dad and here is every thought I'm thinking Ch 2: I'm the daughter and here is every thought I'm... Read morePublished 1 month ago by Christina