recently read: Seating Arrangements, Maggie Shipstead.
Everyone is speaking about this book and giving it, and Shipstead, their highest recommendations. I read this book as an uncorrected proof. The copy I have is light pink; I’m not typically drawn to light pink books, but this one came with a glowing review from one of my favorite authors, Richard Russo, on the cover. Russo describes Shipstead as “an outrageously gifted writer” and that this, her debut novel, is “by turns hilarious and deeply moving.”
I felt slightly duped, honestly. I say this so frequently, but it’s true: I wanted to like it. Knopf’s senior editor describes it as “deceptively frothy” and I agree that this novel is big on the froth.
Seating Arrangements is about a middle-aged man, Winn, who is preparing for his eldest (and very pregnant) daughter’s wedding at his family’s summer house on an island in New England. Winn is the average prepster: he was in an exclusive club at Harvard, married sensibly, raised his family in the sort of shabby elegance of the “old rich.” Winn is extremely, nearly entirely, unlikeable, until the very close of the novel when the reader realizes that his/her disgust has slowly morphed into a dull pity for him. Winn is bored and is boring. In the scene that, potentially, characterizes him best, Winn inspects lobsters being delivered for a dinner party by pulling them all out of the crates they are delivered in, foolishly letting them roam around his lawn in the process. The fact that this makes no sense does not bother him; Winn staunchly believes himself to be right and that his way of doing things is best. He lets his family clean up after him.
Winn does not like his daughters. It is not that he does not get along with them; it is that he does not try to get along with them. Winn is disappointed that he has daughters and his inability to reckon with the women in his life is the primary concern in the novel. It takes on new significance when he begins a not-quite affair with one of the bridesmaids. Numbly lonely and bored, Winn continues to struggle to maintain the facade that everything is all right, but fails miserably to do so.
The narrator focuses on Winn and his thoughts but bobs around, giving each of the characters a chance to think before the reader, which is refreshing after hearing from Winn. Shipstead’s writing is at its best when she describes particular moments in the characters’ pasts; their flashbacks offer such rich reasons for why things happen, that I wish more of the novel could have been written that way. Every time I really got into something that she was writing, the reader is pushed along, into something new, and, invariably, at least a little less interesting.
Her understanding of the breakdown of the seemingly perfect family and Winn’s destruction through his inability to understand that no one, not even the reader, likes him, is profoundly interesting, but I found it hard to focus on this aspect when it was surrounded by the aforementioned “froth.” I’m interested to see what Shipstead writes in the future, but not terribly interested in reading something similar to this.