Winn Van Meter is heading for his family’s retreat on the pristine New England island of Waskeke. Normally a haven of calm, for the next three days this sanctuary will be overrun by tipsy revelers as Winn prepares for the marriage of his daughter Daphne to the affable young scion Greyson Duff. Winn’s wife, Biddy, has planned the wedding with military precision, but arrangements are sideswept by a storm of salacious misbehavior and intractable lust: Daphne’s sister, Livia, who has recently had her heart broken by Teddy Fenn, the son of her father’s oldest rival, is an eager target for the seductive wiles of Greyson’s best man; Winn, instead of reveling in his patriarchal duties, is tormented by his long-standing crush on Daphne’s beguiling bridesmaid Agatha; and the bride and groom find themselves presiding over a spectacle of misplaced desire, marital infidelity, and monumental loss of faith in the rituals of American life.
If you dissected the pages of Seating Arrangements trying to locate its literary heart, you’d find nothing bloody or moving or living but instead a cold, hard machine that transmits keen social analysis and psychological insight but nothing emotional or affective. Which is, perhaps, the point. Just look at the title—Seating Arrangements—it’s about a marriage, a celebration of love uniting of two people, but the title has reduced it to the behind-the-scenes mechanics required to organize such an event.
This novel follows several empty-chested blue blood WASPs preparing for the wedding, but at its core it’s about Winn, the patriarch of the Van Meter family, a man who values sons more than daughters yet only has daughters, who values various country club memberships more than the kind devotion of his wife, and who decides to have an existential crisis the weekend of his daughter’s nuptials. Winn is a stiff character for whom I could not summon one iota of empathy, therefore I was never quite invested here. There were big moments, like an exploding whale, that kept me reading, but I didn’t care how anything turned out.
VAGUELY SPOILERISH DISCUSSION OF ENDING (BUT NOT REALLY, IN MY OPINION):
Despite my indifference, the story hummed right along and I was particularly enjoying Shipstead’s sharp eye for human behavior until the disappointing ending. Shipstead spends the entire book critiquing the vacuity of American “aristocracy,” mostly by skewering Winn’s desperately devolving attempts to recapture youth and meaning. She lowers his character more and more but at the end, Shipstead grants him the opportunity to redeem himself by escaping his soulless family life and depraved WASPy social set. It felt disingenuous and inauthentic. I’m not against redemption narratives; in fact I kind of love them. But Winn is characterized throughout as unredeemable, a man who has made all the wrong choices without knowing it and is just beginning to feel something—guilt, regret, anger?—about his unbalanced life ledger. I wanted him to suffer for it! The way Shipstead writes him, he deserves to suffer for being a simple and simpering man, a man who wants to have an affair with a hot young blonde but cannot even rally himself to consummate this desire.
The ending, therefore, feels a bit neat. I would have preferred a more ambiguous or even blatantly dark ending for these characters. But oh well, I’ll forgive Shipstead this and give her second novel, Astonish Me, the old college try.