stories about wealthy New England WASPs are infinitely fascinating to me. And if they are to you too, you'll definitely get a kick out of Maggie Shipstead's debut novel Seating Arrangements. It's a fun story for many reasons, not the least because it allows us as readers to look down our noses and laugh at these haughty, Harvard-educated, soulless jerks — to turn the tables on these characters who are so used to looking down their noses at us.
The story takes place over the course of a weekend, as the Van Meter and Duff families gather on an island at the Van Meter's summer home off the coast of Connecticut for the wedding of daughter Daphne to son Greyson. Even the names of these characters invite derision from us "normals" — Greyson Duff's father is Dicky Duff, his older brother is Sterling Duff, and his two grandmothers go by Mopsy and Oatsie. I mean...right?! (It's Mopsy who delivers the line of the novel when she's dissatisfied with the choice of restaurant for the rehearsal dinner: "This family is falling into the middle class." OH NO!?!? A fate worse than death, right?)
Lest you think this is chick lit (it's not!), most of the story is told from the perspective of Winn Van Meter, Daphne's father. This guy's a real piece of WASPy work. He's incapable of empathy, has no understanding of (or concern for ) how
he comes off to people outside his upper-crust crew, and he's constantly
"manifesting someone else's idea of perfection." His entire life is constructed only to conform to what's expected of him as a member of the American elite.
Here's all you need to know to understand Winn: When his younger daughter Livia calls in tears about an embarrassing episode at a Harvard club (incidentally, the same club Winn was a member of, and still hold irrationally dear), instead of being a good father and consoling her, he scolds her for shaming the family — "...and you chose that place, of all places, to drag this family through the mud." Wow! And then, when his wife Biddy explains that he may not exactly win father of the year, he can't believe he did anything wrong: "(Livia's) too worked up. She's hormonal. I can't get through to her when she's like that." (Now, I may not be the most sensitive fella in the world, but even I know that going with the "she's hormonal" explanation is going to go over like a lead balloon with most women.)
So of course, Winn makes a fabulous mess of his daughter's wedding weekend — he fights with Livia (thinking she's the reason he's not been invited to join an exclusive golf club), he flirts with one of Daphne's bridesmaids, and he generally makes an ass of himself with drink and bad behavior. It's so much fun to watch him crash and burn. Schadenfruede, to the nth degree!
If you're like me, and you enjoy a good New England snob story, this is for you. Shipstead is a wonderful, observant, often funny writer, and her debut novel is a breezy, beachy read. Hey, it was even blurbed by Richard Russo, if that sweetens the deal. Check it out!