Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead

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Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: Exposing the pretentiousness of the New England elite, this character-driven story of the run up to a wedding is an entertaining read. Just be grateful you don't have to sit next to any of this lot.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: May 2012
Publisher: Blue Door
ISBN: 9780007425211

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Weddings are always a potential source for intrigue and drama. In Maggie Shipstead's debut novel, Seating Arrangements, there's plenty of that going on. Set in a New England island called Waskeke, Winn Van Meter's eldest daughter, Daphne, who is already heavily pregnant is about to marry Greyson Duff. The problems start when Daphne's retinue of bridesmaids, who include her sister, Livia, who has had her heart broken by her first love to the son of Winn's social arch rival, and the flirtatious Agatha mix with Greyson's brothers. Add in the fact that Winn has always had a yearning for Agatha and things get decidedly messy.

It is often suggested that one of the differences between the US and the UK is that there is far less of a class structure in the USA. However, the New England set of 'old money' and social climbing make the Home Counties seem like North Korea by comparison. Winn's devotion is more towards which social clubs he can enroll in and which golf courses he is a member of than he is to his family. To a large extent, Shipstead is sending this value system up. There's little of the glamour of the Gatsby era left here and what's left is a world of keeping up with the Joneses. Although in New England there would probably be a better family name to it. Certainly there's hardly a normal first name amongst this set. We get a Mopsy, a Biddy, a Maude and even an Oatsie. You don't get a lot of Oatsies on this side of the pond.

Part of the problem is that they are just not very nice people and while the characters are well drawn, you kind of want them all to fall into the surrounding ocean rather than reproduce. Only Daphne's Egyptian friend, Dominique is in any way likable. While Shipstead does her best to place them in bizare situations, the sparky humour only comes through in places and her tone is often quite serious. Often nasty characters make for the best stories but they are a pretty charmless bunch and perhaps because they are all almost as bad as each other, I found it hard to root for any of them. You certainly wouldn't want to be sitting next to any of this lot.

The result is that the book balances precariously between a literary novel that has too simple a storyline, and a good yarn that at first seems a little over-written. Partly this is because, while her pretentious characters get themselves into almost farcical situations but they all just take them selves way to seriously. She just about pulls it off, but it does wobble from time to time.

What Shipstead does very well is to expose the pretensions of the New England set, exposing the self-centred views of the older generations and for all their youthful attempts to see the world for what it is, you get the sense that the next generation, including the future Daphne Duff will ultimately conform to the values of their parents. Everyone knows everyone else. Winn's social enemy's wife is a former girlfriend of his. There's a reason that these people marry each other - they may think it's because of family ties and tradition, but the reality is probably that no one else would put up with them!

Winn's mid-life crisis is also tricky. While I can conceive that he may fantasise over a school friend of his daughters, to consider acting on that is a wholly different thing, and Agatha's seeming compliance when she appears to be able to attract any male attention she desires is a bit of a stretch. There's a metaphor of a dead whale that appears on a nearby beach. Like the whale, you feel that Winn will return to where he came from, battered but unlike the whale, carrying on much as before.

It is though an entertaining and well-written insight into a world that I'm very glad not to be a part of. Does Daphne eventually make it down the aisle? There's only one way to find out ...

Our grateful thanks to the kind people at Harper Collins' Blue Door imprint for sending us this book.

For more New England fun, Maine by Courtney Sullivan made me laugh out loud in several places and is great fun.

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