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Seating Arrangements

Maggie Shipstead

(Knopf; US: Jun 2012)

Much Ado about Nothing

An aging man, Winn, is getting ready for the weekend of his older daughter’s wedding. Winn wants many things. He would like for the wedding to go off without a hitch. He would like to seduce his daughter’s friend, Agatha, while his wife isn’t looking. He would also like to win membership to an exclusive golf club on the island where his summer home is perched—a club called the Pequot.


Meanwhile, this novel’s other main character, Winn’s younger daughter, wants her own assortment of goodies. She—the younger daughter, Livia—hopes to win back the love of her ex-boyfriend, Teddy. (A while back, Teddy impregnated Livia, and when he found out about the pregnancy, he bailed. Livia then had an abortion. This is a lot for a young lady to handle, and Livia’s father, Winn, has not been very helpful.) While awaiting the return of Teddy’s affections, Livia would like to have a rebound fling with one of the groomsmen at her sister’s wedding. Lastly, she would like to have some time, now and then, to indulge her own fascination with ocean life…and maybe to find someone with whom she can share this interest.


Many obstacles prevent poor Winn and Livia from getting what they want. Winn’s crush, Agatha, is enticing, but she doesn’t always follow through on her promises. Livia’s long-lost love, Teddy, has a troubling mind of his own, and he seems not to care what Livia thinks. As if the outside world weren’t enough of a problem, Winn and Livia also have internal forces that block them from acquiring all that they desire. It’s difficult for Winn to have a peaceful weekend when Winn himself is a bumbling moron, just as likely to cause chaos as anyone else on the WASP-y East Coast island that is the novel’s setting. And Livia sometimes seems intent on sabotaging herself, especially when she chooses a rebound man who is very clearly cruel and manipulative.


Hovering around Winn and Livia is a cast of secondary characters. Winn’s sister-in-law, Celeste, drinks excessively and provides a play-by-play commentary on all the mischief taking place. The groom’s younger brother, Francis, torments Livia with half-hearted attempts at flirtation, and with deluded, dishonest tales from his past. Biddy, Winn’s wife, frets over her husband’s behavior and dreams of a freer, less predictable life.


In other words, this a sometimes-funny, sometimes-mournful account of the ways in which people lie to others and to themselves. It’s a story about not getting what you want, and about resisting the occasional wish to acquire some self-knowledge. It’s like a Shakespearean comedy set in 2012, on an island full of Princeton and Harvard graduates.


Shipstead’s prose is confident and funny, especially in the sex scenes:


“He pinned her against the washer and bit her mouth while his hands pulled at her thighs, ran up them to clutch at her ass. His fingers raced along the elastic frontier of her underwear and breached it. When he touched her, lost as he was in his rapacious frenzy, he registered the uncanny absence of pubic hair. The sensation shocked him. He had known, through hearsay and his rare ventures into the cybermetropolis of pornography, that this was common now, but his sexual heyday had been during the era of bush. Agatha could have been a different species from the other women he had touched. Thunderstruck, he bent down to look at her, pulling up her dress. Her naked sex, plaintive and exposed, reminded him of children and animal paws and the noses of horses and the word ‘pudenda.’”


...Also memorable:


“He had never before allowed her to touch him—he had only touched her—and now, when it finally happened, her fingers tugging on his limp dick felt deeply inappropriate, humiliating, even grotesque. He was a married man approaching his sixtieth birthday, lying on the floor of an unfinished beach house belonging to his imagined nemesis, being jerked off by a school friend of his daughter’s. He let out a kind of sob.”


...And those aren’t the only moments that made me smile. I also liked the occasional references to an elderly party guest named Oatsie, who casts disapproving, all-knowing glances at her grandsons and occasionally barks orders to anyone who might be nearby. I enjoyed the depiction of Sterling, a reptilian bad-boy party guest who very quickly and unforgettably lives up to his reputation within a few hours of his arrival. And I won’t forget the description of an alluring young lady who often gets bored and distracted during sex; one of her past conquests complains that she is like a beautiful car “without an engine.”


It’s true, as some readers have noted, that not every character is well-developed. Winn’s sister-in-law, for example, is a bit like a cartoon character. But is this really a serious flaw? Dickens sometimes used flat characters. The presence of these characters is still enjoyable, and, anyway, Shipstead is not setting out to write something like Remembrance of Things Past.


Also, Shipstead’s flat characters are few and far between. Shipstead breathes life into many of her creations, most notably Winn, Livia, and Biddy.


Beyond this, Shipstead is actually capable of inspiring her readers. Throughout the book, she subtly suggests that we would all be better off if we spent a bit more time wondering about things outside our own immediate realms of experience. Livia is most charming when she becomes captivated by a dolphin, or by an injured lobster in her care. Winn is most alive in an uncomfortable moment when he is, very briefly, forced to see the world through another person’s eyes. And Shipstead herself has spoken explicitly about the redemptive power of imagination; she describes this power in a short essay she wrote about her novel. She advises her readers not to write what they know, but to write what they wonder about. Our imaginations can keep us from getting caught, getting trapped; they can renew our interest in being alive.


And so I’d recommend Seating Arrangements. It’s more intelligent than many beach reads, and yet it offers quite a few of the pleasures you might find in a Nora Roberts tome (intrigue, fabulous settings, sex). You’ll find yourself thinking about Shipstead’s characters when you’re not reading the book, which is a good sign that some passion and fire went into its composition.


You might also find yourself itching to grab your laptop by the time you’ve finished Seating Arrangements. Shipstead, after all, is not yet 30. If she can craft such a wise and insightful story, who’s to say that at least a few of her readers can’t do the same?

Rating:

I am a freelance writer and teacher who lives in New York.


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