Winn Van Meter, the patriarch of the WASP-y New England family portrayed in Maggie Shipstead's debut novel Seating Arrangements, likes things just so. He doesn't like the screen door slammed at his summer home on the fictional, Nantucket-esque island of Waskeke. He coordinates a family cookout "with the verve of someone conducting a philharmonic orchestra." When he's knocked off his bicycle by a golf cart on the day before his daughter Daphne's wedding, he's upset not because of his bleeding leg but because the cart driver doesn't apologize.
IMPRESSIVE DEBUT Californian channels classic New England.
He is desperate to get into Waskeke's Pequod Golf Club — but keeps getting the cold shoulder from the powers-that-be. In college, he "perfected a certain calculated shabbiness and showed it off with the scuffed toes of his cracked and flattened loafers and the tiny rip that he made and then mended on the lapel of his favorite sport coat."
This is true blue-blood stuff, and it's showcased with talent and a straight face by 28-year-old Shipstead, a native Californian who was unfamiliar with the world of prep schools and madras shorts until she matriculated at Harvard University. Her book places a magnifying glass over classic New England upper-crust culture, with the occasional caricature outshined by excellent character development and family intrigues galore. 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.
As with any WASP family worth its weight in Wall Street stocks and bonds, there are innumerable dreams, desires, and depressions lurking right underneath the surface — which are set to boiling by the dual incendiary factors of alcohol and a wedding. Winn has lascivious feelings toward one of Daphne's bridesmaids. His other daughter, Livia, is reeling from a bad breakup and is a rebounding mess on two legs. Dominique, another bridesmaid (and the one who is the most removed from this faux-aristocratic world), observes the scene coolly but with increasing sadness.
"This was truly advanced WASP: how to comfort a wronged wife and mother without acknowledging any misdeeds done or embarrassment caused by loved ones," Dominique thinks. "Too advanced for her."The action gets increasingly desperate, and a frequently shifting point of view (Winn and Livia get the most facetime, but we also hear from Dominque and Winn's wife, Biddy) reminds the reader that, especially when it comes to family dysfunction, everyone has a different perspective. The final showdown begins with Winn's trainwreck of a wedding toast, during which he tells Daphne and her fiancé: "[E]ven a happy marriage like my own and like I'm sure yours will be, Daphne, is a precursor to death. If you never leave your partner and you're faithful, marriage has the same kind of finality. There is nothing else." Cheers!
In this scene, as well as several others, Winn makes the reader cringe — Shipstead does "middle-aged male entitlement tinged with disappointment" very well. How did she achieve this?
"With all the characters I feel compassion for them but there's something about each of them that kind of annoys me," Shipstead says on the phone from California. "[Winn is] the character I felt like I had the firmest grip on, actually. I felt like I understood his deal. I don't think men as a gender are really all that secretive about how they operate."
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