Monday, June 3, 2013

Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead

A WASP wedding

This novel takes place on a Martha Vineyardish island during three days of preparations for the oldest Van Meter daughter’s wedding. A beach, a wedding, a quartet of pretty blonde girls. Hmm, could this be chick lit? But the prose is accomplished, the many characters are expertly delineated, and some of the subplots are subversive. Could this be literary fiction? The central narrative consciousness is proper Bostonian Winn Van Meter. My main issue with the book is that Winn struck me as so insecure and phony, that I kept waiting for a Clark Rockefeller he’s-not-really-a-WASP plot line. However, apparently Winn actually is a legitimate WASP and the main plotline becomes can he keep his hands off a cockteasing bridesmaid. That’s dull. What kept me reading was the many nonconforming minor characters, the disabled girl, the Coptic graduate student, the crusty old Granma (now she struck me as a real WASP). The subplots were many times more interesting than the main plot.  

Winn is an uninteresting black hole right at the center of the novel. I couldn’t understand why his wife stayed with him. He’s obsessed with getting into the exclusive golf club – stakes like that are too low. The cockteasing bridesmaid was one-note and I couldn’t understand why he was attracted to her. The final scene with the two of them drunkenly crawling around the roof of a mansion is large, violent, and, as in many debut novels, not sufficiently motivated. However, in the course of the book a dead whale blows up, which is kind of cool. My question is, I think, does a talented writer have an obligation to take on big ideas when drafting a novel? Because I don’t think playing around with pretty paper dolls is sufficient.

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