Sunday, December 23, 2012

Book Review: "Seating Arrangements" by Maggie Shipstead

What is it about weddings that cause so much drama? For many years, wedding-related chaos has provided inspiration for countless books, stories, movies, plays, even songs, and when a seemingly functional family gets caught up in the melee, it's even more fun to watch, even if you've seen it all before. And such is the stuff behind Maggie Shipstead's Seating Arrangements, a humorous, even somewhat poignant look at the dust a wedding kicks up, and the madness and introspection that follows.

Having raised two daughters with his wife, Biddy, Winn Van Meter knew there would come a day where he would have to give his daughters' hands in matrimony. But as family and friends prepare to gather at the Van Meters' summer home on the New England island of Waskeke, he realizes things aren't exactly as he thought they might be. His soon-to-be-betrothed daughter Daphne is seven months pregnant, and his younger daughter, Livia, has just come through a bitter breakup with her boyfriend, Teddy Fenn, the son of one of Winn's biggest rivals, and she is still not quite on stable ground. And one of Daphne's bridesmaids, her childhood friend Agatha, seems to have taken an interest in Winn, which is both flummoxing and flattering.

And that's just the tip of the iceberg. Winn, a Harvard graduate raised to prize tradition and appearances and loyalty above all, can't quite understand why he hasn't been admitted to a prestigious country club on the island. He also doesn't understand why Livia can't pull herself together instead of throwing herself at one of the groomsmen, or why he seems to be losing control of his family and his life.

You may be thinking, you've seen this all before. Shipstead definitely travels on familiar ground in this book, but her storytelling ability and knack for dialogue (both spoken and inner dialogue) makes even the familiar seem captivating and compelling. While you might not ever experience some of the first-world-type problems some of the characters deal with, and you may never know a person with the first name of Sterling or Dryden or Agatha or Greyson, Shipstead skillfully blends the stereotypes of the rich with the emotional challenges everyone confronts regardless of their net worth.

True, this book isn't as uproariously funny as some of the reviews I've read promised it was. (I definitely had more than a few chuckles, even laughs, though.) And some of the characters aren't quite as sympathetic as you hope they'd be, so you may not care as much about their problems. But in the end, Seating Arrangements is a tremendously enjoyable and insightful look at human foibles, and how a family wedding highlights them and in some cases, causes them to multiply. Definitely well-done.

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