Book review: Seating Arrangements

Maggie Shipstead’s nuanced debut novel, which won last year’s Dylan Thomas Prize, probes the manners and mores of White Anglo-Saxon Protestants

By Bradley Winterton  /  Contributing reporter

Tue, May 21, 2013 - Page 12

There has been a great deal of hype surrounding this novel, but almost all of it seems to me to be deserved. Confirmation of this high praise is that it won the Dylan Thomas Prize for 2012, one of the most valuable prizes for English-language fiction, limited to novelists under the age of 30.

It’s a story of a family wedding on a New England island. Those involved are White Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPs), and yet Maggie Shipstead’s approach isn’t to satirize them so much as to probe the implications of their beliefs about themselves, and to evaluate their lives. None of the characters, needless perhaps to say, is perfect, and it’s their doubts and uncertainties that form the gist of the novel’s interest.

This isn’t to say that there’s no hostile criticism expressed. The central confrontation in the book is between the bride-to-be’s father, Winn, and a young friend of the family, Sterling, who’s been caught having sex with an attractive loose-cannon almost immediately after he’s done the same thing with Winn’s vulnerable younger daughter. But Winn, for his part, has recently bungled an attempt at extra-marital sex with the same attractive outsider, and Sterling witnessed the event.

This leads to some home-truths for Winn, in many ways the novel’s central character. After Winn calls on him to be a gentleman, Sterling replies “I’d rather get laid”, and carries on as follows. “Shouldn’t women be allowed to choose who they sleep with and when, regardless of the consequences? Do you really think men should police them? Or do you just want special rules for your daughter?”

Earlier in the book there’s a passage attacking the affluent New Englanders’ pretensions to status, though again it’s only offered as one character’s opinion. “They wanted,” the character believes, “to be aristocrats in a country that was not supposed to have an aristocracy, that was, in fact, partly founded as a protest against hereditary power,” and goes on to list “their special clubs, their family trees” and “their tricky manners”.

It’s true that the concerns of such people, especially as regards club-membership and the status of neighbors, do feature prominently in the novel. The fact that one neighbor wasn’t elected to a prestigious club at Harvard, whereas Winn was, and that possibly as a result Winn isn’t being admitted to the smart island golf-club, where the said neighbor holds a powerful position, is elaborated at some length, and towards the end of the book Winn is even made to clamber over the roof of his perceived adversary’s house in order to tear down its weather-vane. But it’s Winn’s insecurity, not his snobbery, that really matters, and insecurity is everywhere in this novel.

The bride is already eight-months pregnant, her sister has recently been dumped by the father of her fetus (subsequently aborted), and there’s a token gay who only ever speaks a couple of words (though there are skeletons in the family cupboard). There’s a dead whale marooned on the beach, though any symbolism remains to the end mysterious. And there’s a comic and very expensive wedding-arranger who manages to make matters even more problematic than they are to begin with.

But this is generally a deft novel characterized by its author’s lightness of touch. The fear of death affects several of the characters, but no one actually dies. Winn’s somewhat drunken wedding speech calls marriage a preparation for death, and I thought this rather astute until it became obvious, for once, what the author herself thought, and it turned out to be critical. Generally, though, Shipstead seems to believe people should be left to make their own decisions, if not always when they are making speeches at their daughter’s wedding.

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.