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Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Review: 'Seating Arrangements'

By Maggie Shipstead
Literary fiction
June 2012
ISBN: 978-0307599469
Although it's not necessary to fall in love with characters while reading a novel, it is an interesting experience to be fascinated by those who represent something the reader disdains. Such was the experience of reading about a well-off WASP family and its circle of friends and family in Maggie Shipstead's debut novel, Seating Arrangements.

Because of Shipstead's talent, it's possible to view the first-world problems of this Manhattan titan of finance with empathy, as his true lot in life is revealed. The more the reader learns about Winn Van Meter and his family, both his children and those who came before him, the more his situation is apparent. He thinks he is the ultimate insider, yet it is revealed that family truths he grew up believing may not be so. He is trying to hold together a view of the world that upholds certain standards, doing his bit as a part of the establishment, yet he doesn't fit in as firmly as he had believed.

The novel takes place during the weekend of the oldest daughter's wedding. She is in her third trimester, but she is not the novel's focus. His youngest daughter could use a little understanding. She's not getting it, mainly because Winn is trying to uphold perceived standards about what is and is not proper. And in trying to uphold those standards, his conduct is far from becoming.

As the novel opens, every day for Winn is "a platform for accomplishment". His professional position appears secure, apart from the young sharks that anyone his age would face, and in Connecticut he has efficiently loaded the big car to take stuff, lots of stuff, to his wife and daughters already at their island summer home on Waskeke Island. But what's on Winn's mind? One of his daughter's bridesmaids. He's like Kevin Spacey's character in American Beauty, wanting that youth in a daughter's friend in an entirely inappropriate way.

What Winn may want more than the frisson of interest he receives from being around Agatha, the bawdy bridesmaid, is to turn back the clock, to a time when his daughters were still children. That's when he could rely on peace and quiet:

Waskeke was the great refuge of his life, where his family was most sturdy and harmonious. To have all these people, these wedding guests, invading his private domain rankled him, though he could scarcely have forbidden Daphne from marrying on the island. She would have argued that the island was her island, too, and she would have said Waskeke's pleasures should be shared.

Ah, this is a family that doesn't share. And it shows in their fractures. The youngest daughter, Livia, fell in love, hard, with the son of one of the families Winn believes he is in the circle of. He dumped her, she aborted the baby and now the boy's parents, the Fenns, may be the key to Winn getting into the private golf club on the island. That goal appears more important to him than his oldest daughter, Daphne, having a successful wedding and Livia having her heart healed. Winn continually brings it up in conversation until even his faithful wife Biddy tells him to can it. Winn thinks Livia's actions or the fact that he slept with Fee Fenn before Jack Fenn met her may be in his way. Why can't they all let bygones be bygones? Yet it is Winn who remembers why others should hold grudges.

The importance of these social clubs to Winn is shown through his memories of his emotionally distant father, who belonged to many clubs. Winn kept Fenn from joining a Harvard club when they were both undergraduates, and Winn thinks that may be yet another reason the Fenns are keeping him from joining that golf club now.

In an interesting subplot, Fenn's son is following in his father's footsteps to join the army as a soldier. His father "won" the Vietnam lottery and voluntarily joined up instead of going to Canada or trying to get into the guard, as other fortunate sons were able to do. Winn and the other guys at college don't understand this decision. The discussion these Ivy League characters have of obtaining a deferment, because the loss of one of their own would be a waste, could serve as a discussion opener today of who has served in the post-draft world.

But there is still the wedding. It is starting to feel like "a treacherous puzzle, full of opportunities for the wrong thing to be said or done". Whether it's Agatha, the groom's wayward brothers, heartbroken Livia or patriarch Winn, some or all of them will take what they think is theirs and not do it in proper form. This is after Livia's need for parental love became clear, and the bluntness with which Winn let her down is jaw-dropping.

Finishing Seating Arrangements can leave a reader grateful to not be a WASP. That can be extended to not wanting to be like the people that Winn wants to be liked by, or not wanting to fall into the kinds of traps in which he fell about the need to be so well-regarded by others. But it is possible to finish the novel wanting to be the kind of person who can read about characters representing people far outside one's circle, and wish for better for them.

The rich are different from you and me, as Fitzgerald is supposed to have said to Hemingway. It's not, as Hemingway is supposed to have replied, that they have money. It's what they think the money replaces. After reading novels such as Seating Arrangements and Fitzgerald's masterful The Great Gatsby, it's good to not be like them. The occasional, fascinated peak into their world is enough.

©2012 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

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