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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.
A San Francisco Chronicle and Daily Candy Best Book of the Year
Winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for First Fiction
Winner of the Dylan Thomas Prize
“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)
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This book is a wickedly entertaining and beautifully written satire on social status, families, marriage, love, and seersucker pants. Although superficial on the surface, it has a lot of depth and heart. It's really delightful.
A well-wrought and entertaining novel that will make you laugh out loud, roll your eyes and appreciate the universal truth that no one really knows what they are doing but they are trying and hoping they'll get it right.
Well done! A Great Read for Summer or any other time you're dreaming of Summer - it is literary and captivating. Not a 'simple ' beach read. There is purpose behind every introduction of another voice and the voices are distinct. The Clock is set - Thursday, Friday, Saturday and the wedding weekend is done. Enjoy these 3 days. Sorry to see it end.
The sex scenes with the central protagonist were disturbing to me, the language was harsh and often vulgar. I wonder if it was a literary device or an uncomfortableness. It was jarring and difficult to read in comparison to her treatment of other sexual episodes in the narrative.
The abortion subplot: gutsy, considerate; and yet for a novel all about social perceptions and place, the writer left a number of elements unexplored. It was as if she had the courage to actually include the social reality of and within families and post abortive mothers and then failed to really dig around in the emotional realities.
Focus: it felt like the focus was so close in, omniscient narrator, that one got to the heart of the personal experience of the character but never to the pull back focus to be able to really perceive global impact on the group of characters.
I enjoyed the first half tremendously. I am ambivalent about the second half while I still understand that the actions of the characters demand exactly this particular emotional outcome to the reader.
Above all, this woman can write. Clever, intuitive, well constructed.