A debut work by Maggie Shipstead — graduate of the Iowa’s Writers Workshop and recipient of the Stegner Fellowship of Stanford University — Seating Arrangements is a well-written story, with rounded and realistic characters. The book received high praise from well-known book critics from reputable publications, such as the NYTimes, and a fairly good review from the Washington Times as well. And yet, for me, something seems amiss.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t pretend to be the novelist Shipstead has clearly proven herself to be — the plot moves steadily, the language is precise, and Shipstead can be quite humorous. That said, I found myself wanting to send the majority of the characters to time out, as they most reminded me of children behaving badly.
The protagonist of this novel is Winn Van Meter, an ivy league graduate, husband to Biddy, and father to pregnant bride-to-be Daphne and formerly-pregnant jilted Livia. The setting, a New England summer home on Waskeke island, complete with beaches, estates and an exclusive country club that continuously shuns Van Meter, is described in great detail and leaves the reader longing for a beach vacation.
The drama of the story hinges not only on the pre-wedding activities of Daphne, her fiance Greyson Dugg, his immediate family, but also on Van Meter’s dip into a mid-life crisis that leaves much to be desired of his character, his role as a husband, as well as a father. The most likeable characters, however, turn out to be the family Van Meter deems to be his personal enemies.
While the book jacket does, indeed, point out that this story is meant to be a satire, I quite agree with the latter part of Washington Times review; Shipstead doesn’t quite achieve that satirical slant.
All that said, I don’t mean to tear this book apart. I think Shipstead is a talent to watch, with an impeccable eye for detail, and a way with words, to say the very least.