Synopses & Reviews
Maggie Shipstead’s irresistible social satire, set on an exclusive New England island over a wedding weekend in June, provides a deliciously biting glimpse into the lives of the well-bred and ill-behaved.
Winn Van Meter is heading for his family’s retreat on the pristine New England island of Waskeke. Normally a haven of calm, for the next three days this sanctuary will be overrun by tipsy revelers as Winn prepares for the marriage of his daughter Daphne to the affable young scion Greyson Duff. Winn’s wife, Biddy, has planned the wedding with military precision, but arrangements are sideswept by a storm of salacious misbehavior and intractable lust: Daphne’s sister, Livia, who has recently had her heart broken by Teddy Fenn, the son of her father’s oldest rival, is an eager target for the seductive wiles of Greyson’s best man; Winn, instead of reveling in his patriarchal duties, is tormented by his long-standing crush on Daphne’s beguiling bridesmaid Agatha; and the bride and groom find themselves presiding over a spectacle of misplaced desire, marital infidelity, and monumental loss of faith in the rituals of American life.
Hilarious, keenly intelligent, and commandingly well written, Shipstead’s deceptively frothy first novel is a piercing rumination on desire, on love and its obligations, and on the dangers of leading an inauthentic life, heralding the debut of an exciting new literary voice.
From the Hardcover edition.
“Smart and frothy….Beneath the surface of this summery romp lie animosities, well-paced sexual suspense and a clash between appearances and authenticity…waltzlike.” New York Times Book Review
"A sophisticated summer romp...Shipstead's weave of wit and observation continually delights. I wouldn’t be surprised if someday she trades her Lilly Pulitzer for something from Joseph Pulitzer." Washington Post
"Whipsmart and engaging...the best kind of smart beach read." O Magazine
“Dead-on delightful…a champagne-fueled, saltwater-scented comedy of upper-crust New England manners and mores.” National Geographic Traveler
"Irresistible [and] joyously good." Daily Mail (UK)
“Elegant, delightful…Shipstead’s sentences simmer and crackle on the page.” San Francisco Chronicle
“This is one of those rare debut novels that neither forsakes plot for language nor language for plot. It is gratifying on every scale….The novel is teeming with the sort of casual philosophizing that encourages passage-underlining and earnest recommendation.” The Boston Globe
“Zestful yet acerbic…for all its madcap quirkiness, Shipstead’s adroit escapade artfully delivers a poignant reflection on the enduring if frustrating nature of love, hope, and family.” Booklist
“Vibrant prose and moments of keen insight.” Publishers Weekly
“Delightful…Shipstead writes with clarity and confidence, nimbly dropping into multiple characters’ heads, giving each a distinct voice and point of view but always with great wit and heart. Seating Arrangements brims with sharp observations about love, lust, family, and the real meaning of marital bliss.” Entertainment Weekly
“Impressive….Shipstead’s characters…feel totally true to life.” People, Style Watch
“Shipstead seems at home in the Waspy milieu of private schools and their preening, privileged attendees…a keen-eyed rendering of America’s self-invented caste, its members’ revelry in an illusory ‘axis of perfect exclusivity’ and their pitiful strivings ‘to be aristocrats’ in a country that was built on anti-aristocratic conventions.” The New Yorker
“Seating Arrangements delightfully and poignantly upends the WASP idyll, poking holes into the studiously shabby carpets to reveal the limitations of a privileged world that revolves around the same plummy prep-school pedigrees, club memberships and summer havens…through prose that sparkles while it slays.” USA Today
“Told from the wry perspective of the father of the (very pregnant) bride, this spicy debut tracks the goings-on at a Cape Cod wedding where endless drama unfolds.” Real Simple
A San Francisco Chronicle
and Daily Candy
Best Book of the Year
Winner of the Dylan Thomas Prize
The Van Meters have gathered at their family retreat on the island of Waskeke to celebrate the marriage of daughter Daphne to the impeccably appropriate Greyson Duff. The weekend is full of champagne, salt air and practiced bonhomie, but long-buried discontent and simmering lust stir beneath the surface.
Winn Van Meter, father of the bride, is not having a good time. Barred from the exclusive social club he’s been eyeing since birth, he’s also tormented by an inappropriate crush on Daphne’s beguiling bridesmaid, Agatha, and the fear that his daughter, Livia — recently heartbroken by the son of his greatest rival — is a too-ready target for the wiles of Greyson’s best man. When old resentments, a beached whale and an escaped lobster are added to the mix, the wedding that should have gone off with military precision threatens to become a spectacle of misbehavior.
About the Author
Maggie Shipstead was born in 1983 and grew up in Orange County, California. Her short fiction has appeared in Tin House, VQR, Glimmer Train, The Best American Short Stories, and other publications. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a recipient of the Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University.
Reading Group Guide
1. “The river bears no empty bottles, sandwich papers, / Silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends / Or other testimony of summer nights. The nymphs are departed. / And their friends, the loitering heirs of City directors; / Departed, have left no addresses.” This is the novel’s epigraph, from “The Wasteland,” T. S. Eliot’s epic poem of ruin and desolation. How does this verse relate to Seating Arrangements
? Why has the author elected to place it at the front of her novel?
2. Winn is obsessed with status, with matters of appearance and pedigree and joining all the right clubs. What do you think the author thinks of Winn? What did you think of him? Is he sympathetic? Does your view of him change over the course of the novel? Do you think Winn himself changes or grows over the course of the novel?
3. How is Daphne different from her father? Is her world view different or is it the same? How do Daphne’s and Livia’s values differ?
4. Discuss Dominique’s role in Seating Arrangements. How is she different from the other characters in the novel, and how does this alter the reader’s perspective?
5. Discuss the scene where the whale explodes. What do you think the whale symbolizes for the author? What do you think the explosion is meant to dramatize or represent?
6. On page 164, Biddy draws herself a bath and spends a quiet moment reflecting on her predicament and her marital expectations after Winn’s inescapably obvious attentions to Agatha following her fall from the deck. “The obviousness was what she could not tolerate. She had known what she was when she married him, had expected to be the kind of wife who looked the other way from time to time, but she had also expected him to be discreet. And he had been. She assumed there had been other women, but she had never come across any evidence of them, which was all she asked. A simple request, she had thought: cheap repayment for her forbearance, her realism, her tolerance. At times his discretion had been so complete she had allowed herself to believe maybe there hadn’t been others, but she didn’t like to risk being foolish enough to believe in something as unlikely as her husband’s fidelity.” What is Biddy’s view of marriage? Does the author share this view? Do you? Is fidelity essential to a good marriage? What exactly is a good marriage, in your view? In Shipstead’s?
7. Aunt Celeste brings levity, acerbic wit, and a rather dark personal history to a host of subjects that are often treated sanctimoniously, among them, romantic love and the possibility of living happily ever after. What is Celeste’s contribution to the Van Meter family, and to the novel as a whole? What is your opinion of her? The author’s?
8. In what way does the Duff family differ from the Van Meter family? How are they aware of their differences, whether social, financial, or historical? Do you think the author is pointing out their differences primarily, or their similarities?
9. On page 170, Winn recollects a story he was told one night at the Vespasian, while still a young man, about his grandfather’s inheritance. How is this story significant, and how has it informed the truths and myths of his family history?
10. In chapter eleven, Livia and Francis have a fascinating conversation in which the author provides several nuanced reflections on varieties of love: maternal, filial, familial, romantic. How do these ruminations embody—or shape—our perception of love and its obligations, in the world of Seating Arrangements and in the world at large?
11. Following the aforementioned conversation, Francis says to Livia, “Another reason I like you is that I think we have similar roles in our families. We’re the critical ones. We represent a threat to their way of life, a new order.” What does he mean? How, in particular, might Livia be perceived as a threat to her family’s way of life? Is she more or less of an iconoclast than her aunt Celeste?
12. Discuss the debacle of Winn’s bridal toast in which he equates marriage with death. Do you think the author intends the reader to perceive this as farcical or tragic?
13. Look at the end of chapter seventeen, which closes with Livia listening to her parents in their bedroom and the line, “Their door shut behind them, and she heard the murmur of their voices, the unknowable language they spoke only to each other.” How does this recast our sense of Winn and Biddy’s marriage?
14. Discuss the epilogue and, in particular, the final image of Daphne and Winn dancing. What note does the author strike at the novel’s conclusion? How has the novel, and the family, recovered from its various catastrophes and regained its balance after the tawdriness of the events that preceded it and the spectacularly deflating effect of the patriarch’s wedding toast? Is this a happy ending? Do you think the author intends it to be so?
15. Is it surprising, given the novel’s themes and its central voice—an older, patrician male—to discover that its author is a twenty-eight-year-old woman? Why or why not?