The premise of Maggie Shipstead’s debut novel sounds like a typical beach read: A family gathers at a New England summer home for a wedding weekend and—surprise, surprise—nothing goes as planned. But Shipstead’s writing is so precise, her characters so nuanced, her plot so unexpected, that Seating Arrangements is anything but a breezy poolside read.

One thing that sets the novel apart from the pack is its narrator. We don’t get the story of Daphne Van Meter’s wedding from the bride herself, or from her troubled, envious little sister Livia, as one might expect; rather, it’s the middle-aged father of the bride, Winn Van Meter, who leads us through the twisting, turning events of the weekend.

Winn loves his daughters and his wife, but he doesn’t understand them. In fact, he doesn’t seem to understand much. He is obsessed with outward appearances and his social status—to the detriment of his family, his marriage and his mental health. Shipstead completely inhabits Winn and all his neuroses, painting a devastating picture of a man in crisis during what should be one of the happiest times of his life. This is social satire at its best, a novel examining a group of people who seem to have it all and are, for the most part, completely falling apart. The bride is beautiful and happy, but she’s also heavily pregnant. Livia, the maid of honor, is too busy nursing her own heartbreak to fulfill her sisterly obligations.

Seating Arrangements is not a novel about a wedding. It’s a novel about family, marriage and what it means to belong. Like J. Courtney Sullivan in Maine or Galt Niederhoffer in The Romantics, Shipstead places deeply flawed characters in an idyllic setting and creates an unforgettable world.

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