“Little is conjured, nothing much is shown.”
Two things about Seating Arrangements, Maggie Shipstead’s debut novel, amaze. First, the language of the piece is beautiful, lively, insightful. Second, in spite of the virtuosity of the verbiage it all adds up to so little.
Seldom has a book displayed so much skill, yet presented such meager enjoyment.
It is a familiar tale: a New England family, a staunch group if there ever was one, gathers along with various friends and neighbors—well-meaning or not—for a wedding on a Nantucketty island named “Waskeke,” on which the family, Winn Van Meter and his wife “Biddy” (named as an act of foreshadowing or as an homage to all things WASPish—you decide) and their daughters, own one of those ramshackle abodes that speaks of upper classes and mold infestation.
Seen through the eyes of knowledgeable outsider Dominque, the Van Meters are described as follows:
“Biddy was practical, brisk, kind. Winn wore bow ties and pocket squares and attacked all parts of his life with a certainty and precision that Dominique found reassuring. There were no weeds in the Van Meter garden, no unmatched socks in their laundry room. A tennis ball hung form a string in the garage to mark the exact location where the car must be parked. The milk was thrown out the day before it expired. Yet everything they did—playing tennis, cooking dinner, making friends, getting dressed—seemed effortless . . . They wanted to be aristocrats in a country that was not supposed to have an aristocracy, that was, in fact, founded partly as a protest against hereditary power.”
Perhaps my chief issue with the book is contained herein, in this simple, brief passage.
In the need for portraying a man who appears to be all bow ties and pocket squares in a manner that also reveals his heart, newcomer Maggie Shipstead, despite her MFA-minted linguistic alacrity, lacks the more potent ability to truly rouse her character to consciousness. And so, it is as if instead of the map of his heart we are given an X-ray.
Seating Arrangements, clever title aside, is a work—and a rather long, slow work at that—of reportage. Too much is told us, too much unveiled, as it were, in this story of a wedding set amid dysfunction, disloyalty, and discovery. Little is conjured, nothing much is shown.
Instead, the author relies on the fact that we have all been here before, studying life among the tight-jawed New Englanders, at home among their boats, their tennis courts, and their ramshackle lives, and simply reeling off the narrative as if it were comprised of phonebook entries. She gives us characters with names like “Oatsie” and “Mopsy” and even “Dicky,” as well as locales and dialogue and plot threads that fill the reader with a distinctly tingling sense of déjà vu. As if Central Casting had had a hand in the whole business.
It is as if Ms. Shipstead were a hostess who sets a lovely, ornate table complete with fish forks and finger bowls, but cannot really cook. And speaking of cooking, there is this, about the archetypal New England dinner, a sentence that will long linger in my head:
“The lobsters had turned the clownish red of death.”
Still, there are moments of dialogue that ring true, as if a tape recorder was hidden under the table at a family dinner. Such as here, as the lobster dinner celebrating the wedding of Greyson and Daphne folds into a general discussion:
“After the applause died down and Greyson finished kissing Daphne, there could be heard, from somewhere on the island, the sound of a bagpipe.
“’What is that tune?’ Oatsie said.
“Winn said, “Is it “Amazing Grace?”
“’Dad thinks every song is “Amazing Grace,”’ Livia said. “It’s like he’s color-blind but for music.’
“’Tone-deaf?’ posited Francis.
“’No,’ Livia said, ‘it’s that he only knows the name of one song.’
“’Maybe it is “Amazing Grace,”’ said Piper.
“’No,’ said Dicky Jr. ‘It’s from that movie about the Titanic.’
“’Titanic?’ said Dominque from her corner, tickled. ‘Dicky Duff Jr., I would not have expected you to come up with that.’
“Dicky Jr. shrugged. ‘It’s what it is.’
“’Everybody,’ said Greyson, ‘my brother is a twelve-year-old girl.’
“’In 1997,’ put in Francis.
“Daphne signed and stretched. ‘I have to go lie down,’ she said, rubbing her belly. ‘I might be back but probably not.’
“Escorted by Greyson, she went inside. ‘Don’t neglect your cocoa butter!’ Oatsie bellowed after her.
“Winn stood. ‘Drink orders?’”
Interplay this good sort of demands an equally strong narrative to wrap around it even though it would sit well within the throats of actors. Here it sparkles for a moment on the page before we are off and onto an endless reel of exposition, old and new, as Winn revisits old slights and experiences new ones, what with help who will not apologize when they are meant to and bridesmaids who beckon.
Those readers who make it to the rehearsal dinner (and I fear that many will not and will, like unhappy wedding guests, slip away into the night) are amply rewarded, because from here onward Seating Arrangements flies.
Characters who, to this point, have been held in check by their strict upbringings begin to careen across the page. Which is not to say that anything explodes, but that quite suddenly jeopardy—both physical and emotional—is very much in the air.
And there is this, this really terrific moment when father and daughter dance together:
“The music began, and he entwined his fingers with hers. The bones and tendons of her hand seemed like the exquisite rendering of some mechanically perfect puppet. He was aware of the hardness of her small fingers between his own, the movement of blood through her veins. His other hand rested on her back and her white-shrouded belly filled the space between them. While the band played the opening measures and the singer in a white diner jacket pulled the microphone from its cradle, Winn did not move but stood looking over Daphne’s shoulder at the faces of the people at the tables, a wall of expectant ovals punctuated here and there by the glitter of jewelry and candle flames.”
As it helps from time to time while reading to inhabit characters with the faces and mannerisms of actors in casting the movie-in-your-head that a book can become, may I suggest Diane Keaton as your Biddy and Steve Martin your Winn? The two of them got this reader through some sluggish times and downright shone when the action at last picked up.
Hollywood, take note.