Winn Van Meter is the patriarch of a lower-upper-class New England family. His daughter Daphne is about to get married to Greyson Duff, a member of a fine old-money family. The ceremony is to take place at the Van Meter family cottage on the island of Waskeke off the coast of Maine. The place is overrun by bridesmaids and groomsmen, family and friends. It should be a time of great celebration.
Alas, things are never that easy.
Winn’s wife Biddy is a paragon of WASP-y virtue who stolidly supports her husband despite harboring suspicions about him. There’s his daughter Livia, who still pines for her lost love Teddy Fenn – who just happens to be the son of Winn’s oldest rival. And of course, there’s Winn’s inappropriate crush on Agatha, Daphne’s best friend and bridesmaid.
All of that is tough enough, but when the deluge of Duffs begins to arrive, things quickly spiral out of control. Poor decisions are made – along with worse assumptions – and the weekend rapidly degenerates. And yet – the cool veneer of high society overlays it all, turning even the most unfortunate and outrageous events from utter disasters to minor inconveniences with powers of self-delusion afforded only the bluest bloods.
On the surface, “Seating Arrangements” seems fairly light – a standard summer beach read. Don’t get me wrong – you could do much worse than spread out on the sand with this novel – but Shipstead has created something so much more than that. In Winn Van Meter, the author has created a wonderful juxtaposition – the stoic outer façade versus the seething inner turmoil. By showing us the emotions that Winn and his generation have been taught to internalize, a fascinating character emerges.
Anyone who has planned a wedding (as I am currently in the process of doing) will recognize bits and pieces of their process within these pages. The faith in tradition and ritual is prominent throughout – even when that faith is being tested or even ignored, it remains omnipresent. Shipstead explores the differences between what is thought and what is spoken; in the button-down world of New England aristocracy, those differences can indeed be vast. In the world of the Van Meters, avoiding perceived embarrassment supersedes all else – even love.
“Seating Arrangements” manages to be funny and dark and poignant – sometimes all at once. Shipstead is a gifted storyteller whose richly realized characters and sweetly flowing prose coalesce into a tale that is by parts sweet and sharp, humorous and heartbreaking. It’s an auspicious debut by an undeniably talented writer.