It’s said of all good novelists that they have a sharp eye for detail, and Maggie Shipstead is no exception. But she‘s also done her research, and among the historical flash-backs is a very convincing and informative account of how the US draft for military service, essentially in Vietnam, worked — using birthday dates, drawn by lot — and how such service could possibly be avoided.
The older female novelists Seating Arrangements call to mind are Virginia Woolf and Iris Murdoch. This may be for the superficial reasons that a family plus friends by the sea inevitably recalls Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (though it has to be said that this new book is a great deal more enjoyable than that novel) and that Iris Murdoch was strongly drawn to water, and not only in her novel The Sea, The Sea. In addition, slightly surreal events that feel symbolic, but of what you’re not quite sure, characterize both Iris Murdoch’s books and this first novel from Maggie Shipstead.
It’s of course impossible to talk of the most important US novels unless you’ve read all the possible contenders. Even so, the extensive praise, plus the Dylan Thomas Prize, suggest that Seating Arrangements might take its place alongside Joseph O’Neil’s Netherland [reviewed in Taipei Times October 25, 2009] and Nam Le’s story collection The Boat [reviewed September 14, 2008] as among the most significant debuts in US fiction in the last decade or so (The Boat isn’t strictly an American book, but it has US connections).
This isn’t fiction on the grand scale. It’s more what Jane Austen described as the “little bit (two inches wide) of ivory” that was her artistic palette. One assumes, though, that Maggie Shipstead is no more ambitious to use ivory than anyone else who cares for elephants these days.