As for Livia, her low point comes on the beach, when she witnesses a beached whale explode while it is being dissected — "she was knocked back by a wall of crimson and pinned to the sand under a heavy rope of intestine."

Shipstead, who said she was inspired to write that scene based on a news report she read years ago, says "it shows the messiness of life and the way the natural world has a way of intruding on people's lives." Indeed, that theme runs through Seating Arrangements: no matter how much order we impose, our emotions have a nasty habit of getting in the way.

SEATING ARRANGEMENTS | by Maggie Shipstead | Knopf | 302 pages | $25.95 | reading July 11 @ 6:30 pm, Kennebooks, 149 Port Rd, Kennebunk + July 15 @ 7:30 pm, Union Church, 3 Stonecliff Rd, Biddeford Pool

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