Saturday, 23 February 2013

Seating Arrangements - Maggie Shipstead

And, the last of my stack from the La Hoopla lists....
Richard Russo, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Empire Falls, wrote a critique of this novel that included the enviable phrase, 'an outrageously gifted writer... her assured first novel is by turns hilarious and deeply moving.' I'm not a naturally envious type, and I don't have a first novel at this point, but I did have a fairy dust moment of looking into the future and...hmmmm!

Seating Arrangements is something of an exposé of New England society, with all its pretensions and frailties laid bare. Two extended families converge on the island of Waskeke for the wedding of Daphne Van Meter and Greyson Duff. Daphne is the eldest daughter of Winn and Biddy Van Meter, and Waskeke is the location of the Van Meter's family retreat, to which they have traveled every summer. Winn is a disgruntled, curmudgeon of a man, deeply regretful that he has had no sons, and emotionally distant from his wife and two daughters. He looks upon the family holiday home as a retreat away from the demands of his job and the need to put a brave face on what he considers to be the real disappointments of his life. The narrative opens with Winn's habitually restful, planned journey to the island to join the others who have gone ahead, while he pleaded work commitments in order to avoid the mass female invasion of his sanctuary by the addition of his sister-in-law, Celeste, and three bridesmaids, to the usual female millieu of wife and daughters. Biddy, his wife, has been consumed by the details of organising the wedding, while Winn, deeply affronted by the fact that Daphne is seven months pregnant, has held aloof, while simultaneously protesting as each bill has arrived - wedding planner, make-up artist, practice session with make-up artist, florist, caterer, etc...

Then the Duffs arrive,
Greyson had three brothers and no sisters. Four boys born at regular two-year intervals, four Duffs in a row. Greyson was the pick of the litter, certainly. The eldest, Sterling, spent all his time in Asia and had a slimy reputation. The next one, Dicky Jr., was congenitally stiff - and why Dicky and Maude had decided to pin the Jr. on their second son, Winn could not guess. Then came Greyson and then this youngest, Francis, the family queer fish, who gave off an appearance of ordinary preppiness, standing on the doorstep in his horn-rimmed glasses and whale pants, but who was always on some spiritual quest or other, embracing a series of Eastern religions, professional ambitions, and other artistic passions.
This is where the quality of the writing comes through. Although the paragraph quoted is part of the general narrative, Winn's voice comes through loud and clear. This is the case every time the action shifts focus. At different points in the story, as the dynamic between the two households and their various extras - Duff grandmothers and friends, the bridesmaids, Celeste, local friends and acquaintances - shifts and swirls, while there isn't a distinct shift in voice per se, there is enough change in the flavour of the text to enable the reader to get caught up in the increasing chaos from a quite personal perspective. It's very clever writing.

And chaos there is. Bridesmaid Agatha has always had a thing for Winn, and takes advantage of him being thrown out of his usual relaxed mode to prey on him. Winn, lusting after her while not really wanting any complications, gets entangled. This is seen by Celeste who, fortified heavily with strong G&Ts, carting masses of baggage from a string of turbulent marriages and breakups, becomes moralising. Winn's younger daughter, Livia, bone-thin and still emotionally traumatised by her break up with a local boy and termination of an unexpected pregnancy, swings wildly between obsessing about getting back with the boy and hitting on one of Greyson's brothers for a re-bound flung to convince herself she's over the boy. Sterling Duff, ever the predator, picks up on Livia's need and a one night stand ensues. Rebuffed by Winn, Agatha also pursues Sterling who, basically, will bed anyone available... Discovered in flagrante by Winn and Livia, there is mayhem. In the background is Winn's deeply frustrating quest to be accepted by the local golf club - from which he believes he is being blocked by the father of Livia's estwhile boyfriend. Turns out, it's actually his wife, way back when, Winn dated briefly before dumping her unceremoniously for Biddy, who is blocking his membership application.

This is just a smattering of the twisting and turning of the plots, sub-plots and sub-sub-plots that drive this story. To write any more of them would necessitate virtually typing out half of the book. I have to say, I did read it through to the end - as much because I became utterly fascinated by Shipstead's ability to keep all the entanglements untangled enough to keep making sense. Having said that, I found the characters deeply unlikeable - with the exception of Dominique, who isn't one of these blue-bloods, but is connected via the girls' college - although she was there on scholarships as opposed to 'because our families have always gone there...' Her understanding of their milieu - to a point - while not being part of it provides the voice of reason in amongst the posturing, jockeying for position, one-upping, and general bad behaviour. The social structures, need to keep up appearances, demonstrate appropriate codes of behaviour - even when it's bad - dominate the narrative.

The climax is the rehearsal dinner, where a hugely drugged Winn - his leg has been stitched having been sliced open in a bicycle accident - blurts out a long and turgid speech about death... Still under the influence, he volunteers to take Agatha to hospital to have her broken finger set - Livia's work when Agatha and Sterling are sprung. Instead of going to the hospital, they end up at the site of the the house being built by the father of Livia's ex and, after yet another unsuccessful attempt by Agatha to seduce him, he climbs the roof to steal the weather vane  and is nearly killed falling off. (See? It's all quite mad!) The last chapter is a review, almost, of the wedding day itself, which has a flavour of being viewed from a great distance, as if muffled by all the repercussions of the events packed into the preceding days. Life will go back to normal, because that's how these people live, but there will be scars.

I don't think I liked this book. I admired the writing, but the characters aren't people I'd go back to read about more. As an example of a particular section of society, I gather from various snippets of reviews I read that Shipstead is bang on the knocker. Scary thought! This is another one for my exchange pile I think!

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