By Heidi Simmons
by Maggie Shipstead
Weddings are one of the great institutions of our culture. Nearly everyone has had the pleasure, or horror, of attending some matrimonial related event. In Maggie Shipstead’s novel, Seating Arrangements, (Knopf, 302 pages) the prenuptial encounters are more life-threatening than life-changing for the father of the bride.
The story takes place over three days. It begins on a Thursday as the wedding party gathers in the Van Meter family summer home on Waskeke, a New England island. The father of the bride is Winn Van Meter. He is a self-absorbed, elitist and is not looking forward to the event. He never wanted children and definitely not daughters.
Now his daughter, Daphne, is marring Greyson Duff. The couple is already seven months pregnant. His youngest daughter, Livia, has recently broken up with her boyfriend, Teddy, after she became pregnant and had an abortion. Girls!
Teddy’s family lives on the island and he is the son of Winn’s ex-girl friend. Her husband, Jack, is Winn’s college rival. Boy how things have changed since he was a lad!
But perhaps they haven’t changed so much. Winn has a thing for Daphne’s bridesmaid Agatha — always has. She is a beautiful seductress and man-eater. Approaching 60 years old, Winn has been a faithful husband — until now.
With his house filled with women, Winn is overwhelmed. His wife Biddy is trying to keep it all together and all the various events on schedule. She doesn’t have time for his whining and ridiculous flirtations. Winn is beside himself with trying to get his hands on Agatha.
His other challenge is to get into the island’s Pequad Country Club where he has been on the waiting list for three years. He can’t understand what the delay is? Unfortunately for Winn, his adversary Jack is on the Pequad Board.
As the groomsmen arrive — a family of all sons — the boys and girls of the wedding party start to hook up. Livia goes for her soon-to-be brother-in-law and ladies man Sterling. Certainly it is not a perfect match, but a potentially perfect rebound.
Watch out, because Agatha loves to compete and soon makes it known she wants Sterling too. Poor Winn can’t keep his intentions private either. Before long the whole wedding party sees what he’s up to with Agatha. And his daughters are not happy about it.
After lots of drinking and a few mishaps on the island with a golf cart and a beached whale, the wedding seems destined to be a disaster. When Winn finally gets Agatha alone, he realizes he is nothing but a fool and everybody knows it!
Nearly killing himself trying to destroy a weathervane on Jack’s pretentious new house to get even with his enemy, Winn realizes what love is all about. And for the first time, Winn recognizes that he is indeed in love with his wife and daughters. The wedding takes place and is nearly perfect. But he still has work to do to make it right with his children.
Not surprisingly, Seating Arrangements is chick lit. But strangely, the protagonist is a middle-aged man in the middle of a middle-age crisis. Winn is arrogant, despicable and more than a little pathetic. He doesn’t get woman nor does he try. Over the few days of the wedding related events, he is confused and frustrated with the crazy life unfolding around him, unaware he is predominately the source of the chaos. However, Livia does bring some trouble on herself and others.
It is a relief when Winn finally gets a glimpse beyond himself to see the treasures he really possesses in his family. He stops the nonsense, but it might be too late.
Shipstead writes her characters with uncanny perception and tremendous insight. She is able to get into the heads of men and women, young and old. As fun as this story is in parts, the first and last quarter of the book is all you need to read. In the middle pages, nothing stupendous, compelling or too serious really happens to derail the pending exchange of vows.
The pregnant Daphne and her soon-to-be husband appear to be solid and actually in love. There is no shit storm of craziness that can derail their relationship. Winn’s change may be for real or he may have just resigned himself to his life and accepted his fate. I kept waiting for something to crack their upper crust world, but that never happens. For me, affairs and country club memberships are not compelling drama.
As much as I liked Shipstead’s writing, it was not enough to keep me interested in the lives of her characters and the relatively uneventful three days.
This is Shipstead’s first novel. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and is a recipient of the Stenger Fellowship from Stanford. In January, she spoke at the Rancho Mirage Writers Festival. She talked about her love for the short story and the challenge of writing a novel.
Intelligent, witty and sardonic, Shipstead is definitely talented. It takes some experience to get the seating arrangements of life just right. No matter, I am looking forward to her next attempt.