I read Maggie Shipstead's Seating Arrangements way back in June, in preparation for Booktopia in Bellingham. It's a comedy of WASP manners set on an exclusive island in Cape Cod over the course of one weekend while a small family wedding takes place. Winn and Biddy Van Meter's eldest daughter Daphne is the pregnant bride.
"Winn would have felt nothing but proud pleasure about the match if not
for the bump in Daphne’s wedding dress. Already her finger had swollen beyond
the capacity of her carefully chosen wedding band, and a stunt ring had to be
bought at the last minute for use in the ceremony."
"Greyson [the groom] always had a robustness about him, but he seemed even more
energetic than usual. Had a football been at hand, he would have been firing
passes to Charlie [his best man] and Francis and to his other brothers, the
older ones, who were sitting in the second Jeep having a murmured argument."
Daphne and Greyson are actually minor characters in the background of this novel while all kinds of crazy drama swirls around them. There's Aunt Celeste's drinking problem, for example:
“That clink-clink, clink-clink, clink-clink that lets you know she’s coming – it’s like the shark music in Jaws.”
There's also a fair bit of sexual tension:
"He didn’t flatter himself – he had seen her around enough men to know
flirtation was, for her, an impersonal reflex, and sex appeal was something she
rained down on the world indiscriminately, like a leaflet campaign."
And excellent dialogue:
"On his way back to the table, Winn encountered Mopsy [grandmother of the groom] standing in the bar and turning in a slow, suspicious circle. 'I’m trying to
find the manager,' she said. 'It’s so cold in this restaurant. I don’t know why
you chose it.''I didn’t choose it,' Winn said. 'Dicky and Maude did.''They wouldn’t have. They know I don’t care for the cold.''Maybe,' Winn offered, 'you’re feeling the chill of
approaching death.'She gave him a long, gloomy squint. 'This family is falling
into the middle class,' she said.
When my book group discussed Seating Arrangements, I read some of my favourite passages aloud. There are so many funny parts, it was hard to choose. One of the members commented that she probably would have liked the book better if I had read the whole thing aloud to her. She wasn't the only person who struggled to feel a connection with the characters. I found it slow at first and was considering abandoning it until I got to the part where the whale exploded. I was hooked from there onwards. (Decomposing whales do explode; see for yourself on YouTube.)
In the end, I was thrilled with Shipstead's vibrant satire. I also enjoyed getting to know Winn, who is not a particularly sympathetic character, but goes through significant changes over the course of a few days. My friends have suggested that the book would make a great romantic comedy film. We repeat the line about the clinking ice cubes (to the tune from Jaws) to make each other laugh.
Readalike: The Last Summer of the Camperdowns (Elizabeth Kelly).