Review: Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead

12712435Blurb:

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.

Review:

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.

3 out of 5 stars

Advertisements

Review: The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. by Adelle Waldman

16045140Blurb:

Writer Nate Piven’s star is rising. After several lean and striving years, he has his pick of both magazine assignments and women: Juliet, the hotshot business reporter; Elisa, his gorgeous ex-girlfriend, now friend; and Hannah, “almost universally regarded as nice and smart, or smart and nice,” who holds her own in conversation with his friends. When one relationship grows more serious, Nate is forced to consider what it is he really wants.

In Nate’s 21st-century literary world, wit and conversation are not at all dead. Is romance? Novelist Adelle Waldman plunges into the psyche of a flawed, sometimes infuriating modern man—one who thinks of himself as beyond superficial judgment, yet constantly struggles with his own status anxiety, who is drawn to women, yet has a habit of letting them down in ways that may just make him an emblem of our times. With tough-minded intelligence and wry good humor The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. is an absorbing tale of one young man’s search for happiness—and an inside look at how he really thinks about women, sex and love.

Review:

Although our brains are identical at birth, by our 20s boy brains have been masculinized and girl brains feminized, even if we grew up in the most liberal of households, and inquiring minds, like mine and Adelle Waldman’s, want to understand these differences. Boys and girls are taught to approach the world in fantastically different ways, so dating, that ritual where we, along with our socially acquired differences, interact most intimately, can become a disaster real fast.

For example, a quick google search for what men are looking for in a girlfriend brings you to this top 10 list which includes “She lets you be a man” and “She respects you.” A lengthier female equivalent, 21 Things To Look For In A Boyfriend, includes “He loves your laugh, even your ugly laugh” and “He knows your favorite dish at the Thai place is. He knows what movie you two watched on your first date. He knows the blanket you love to curl up with when reading.” If we take these articles to represent societal standards, it is abundantly obvious how incompatible the “average” man and woman’s dating goals are. And so dating is this fraught, often bloody battlefield simply because boys and girls taught to approach sex and relationships differently.

The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. depicts the inevitable dating explosion that arises when two people cannot overcome this cultural indoctrination. It’s especially interesting because the protagonist, Nathaniel P, a budding Brooklynite writer with a book deal (did I mention he has a book deal? Because Nathaniel P. wants everyone to know he has a book deal), is aware that social forces have influenced his utter romantic failures, but he’s so weak that he cannot rid himself of these nefarious influences to find Truth and Happiness in a relationship.

Nate is one of the most frustrating and brilliant characters I’ve encountered in a while. He’s the prototype of a white, urban, intellectual male with heaps of liberal guilt. He has this guilt, yet he lacks the guts to surmount it. He knows, for instance, that men and women are equal intellectually, and regrets that a misogynistic culture refuses to acknowledge that, but then he wonders which male academic his girlfriend is quoting when she makes a particularly salient argument. And thus Nate wallows. He thwarts himself, searching for ways to be unhappy because he doesn’t believe he has a right to be happy nor does he even know what would make him properly happy.

The closest he comes to discovering happiness is his relationship with Hannah, also a brilliant young writer, though without a book deal (Nate would like you to know that Hannah does not have a book deal, though he, Nathaniel P, does have a book deal). Unlike his previous girlfriends, Hannah actually challenges Nate. Their relationship is intellectually demanding, and Nate, misogynized subconsciously since birth, fears this. He fears the equal he recognizes in Hannah. Therefore he sabotages their relationship, even though it’s the only thing that brings him real, unfiltered, incandescent joy instead of mere contentment.

Read this book to observe a promising relationship fall apart because a boy has been taught, blindly and unwillfully, to always prelude every date with “I’m just not looking for a relationship right now.” Read this book if you’re the type of person who hears that line and then asks, “Okay, sure…but why exactly?”

Waldman, in precise, piercing prose, dissects the anatomy of a “modern man” to expose what she calls “a certain type of male thinking.” When she cuts Nate up, what you see is terrifying, and the best evidence that socialized gender norms not only hurt women but men too.

4 out of 5 stars