In a country where the wealth gap becomes more and more apparent every day, where the American Dream seems more and more a thing of the past, Maggie Shipstead invites her readers to take a look at the crumbling aristocracy of New England. Her characters seem like Fitzgerald-era castaways, with their biggest concerns being about premiere colleges and entry into exclusive social clubs and maintaining rather antiquated notions of propriety. And in some ways, Shipstead has written the Gatsby for the modern day, a novel that draws the reader in with its sense of escapism, allowing them to inhabit the life of the ridiculously wealthy for a time, but ultimately closes with a powerful refutation to the idealism with which we treat the life of the rich. No one ends up floating dead in a pool with a bullet in their side, but Shipstead infuses in her story an understated permutation of gloom that is equally powerful.
The story has a simply premise—two families descends on a coastal New England island to witness the marriage of Daphne Van Meter to Greyson Duff. The Van Meters make up most of the main characters, with the focus on Winn, the patriarch, and his younger daughter Livia. The strength of Shipstead’s work has always come from her ability to understand and bring to life on the page so many different kinds of people, and this talent is expertly displayed as she allows her readers into the minds of her diverse cast of characters. She breaks this novel into sections, with each section inhabiting the mind of a different person than the last, although Winn and Livia are the most represented. She jumps expertly from the self-absorbed Winn, who is livid about not getting into a local club while also thirsting after one of his daughter’s bridesmaid’s, to Livia, who is struggling with a breakup and recent abortion while attempting to support her pregnant sister through her wedding weekend, to Biddy, Winn’s dejected and lonesome wife, to Mopsy, the aging Duff grandmother, to Sam Snead, the hyper-active wedding planner.
The reader gets to see the difference between generations—Winn seems more obsessed with the way he is perceived than his daughters, more obsessed with his own wealth and legacy—providing for a fascinating meditation on the way that the changing social dynamic in America has affected the people raised here. Furthermore, the most gratifying part of the novel is that Shipstead does not attempt to make any one character particularly likable. Instead she lays them all bare, their flaws apparent, and asks the reader to begrudgingly love them due to their humanity, their inescapable flaws. This forces the reader to understand that there is no good way to have wealth in America, no way to wear it well without being selfish or obsessed. In creating no apparent hero or winner, Shipstead provides a grippingly real portrayal of a dying aristocracy.
All of this is filled in with beautiful details and thoughtful symbolism. The world of Seating Arrangements is a vivid one, down to the colors of the character’s coats and flavors of their wine. It’s not hard to get lost in a story this rich.
Author: Maggie Shipstead
Publication Date: June 2012
Reviewer: Sarisha Kurup is a senior at The Harker School in San Jose, CA.