Review: Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead

Seating ArrangementsI haven’t felt this bitter about a book in a while. I’m actually wavering between liking Seating Arrangements and thinking that it’s OK, because the characters in this book aren’t likable at all, and yet they touched me in some way. Seating Arrangements cracked open its numerous characters with a hammer to expose their many flaws, secrets, and impure motives. Shipstead’s vivid descriptions bring to mind the smell of sea salt in the air, a quaint cottage on an island, and eroding perfection, and overall, Seating Arrangements left me disappointed and skeptical of human nature.

Introduction

Winn Van Meter’s daughter, Daphne, is getting married over the weekend in the Van Meters’ picturesque summer cottage on the island of Waskeke, New England, but the peaceful wedding plans are shattered as the chaotic troubles of all the guests start to boil over. Winn battles his desire for Agatha, Daphne’s friend from college, while trying to convince old schoolmate Jack Fenn to allow him access to the island’s prestigious country club; Biddy, Winn’s wife, broods over Winn’s infidelity; Livia, Daphne’s younger sister, got dumped by Teddy Fenn (son of Jack Fenn) and can’t seem to accept it; and Daphne is the evidently pregnant bride on this celebratory occasion. And that’s just one side of the family… imagine the groom’s side!

Discussion

For me, the problem with Seating Arrangements is that although all the characters are pitiful in some way, their immoral thoughts and wicked behaviors make them less pitiful and more revolting. Sometimes, I blame Winn for his own self-destruction because he just can’t control his libido; and sometimes, I blame Livia’s continuously bad decisions on her inability to get over The Boy.

And this is a book that’s built on the characters, and each character gets to broadcast their thoughts at some point… so imagine how unpleasant it is to see so many characters going down the wrong path, and THERE is the cause to my bitterness. There is no happy ending – at least happy enough for my liking – and the characters are stuck indefinitely in their characteristic weaknesses. They grow, but in the wrong direction. You’d think there would be a limit to the amount of bad decisions one can make, but apparently not so.

Even though I’m disgruntled by the characters, Shipstead’s writing is wonderfully vivid and the scenes she paints come to life in a flash. The following memory that Winn recollects is sweet and imaginative (contrary to his present, infidelity-prone state-of-mind):

By nature, he disapproved of lying around. Lost time could not be regained nor missed mornings stored up for later use. Each day was a platform for accomplishment. Up with the sun, he had told his daughters when they were children, whipping off their covers with a flourish and exposing them lying curled like shrimp on their mattresses.

There are more happy memories in this story, but that’s all they are: memories. The present seems to be a pain in the butt for the Van Meters, and why is realistic fiction always so brutal? (Should optimists stop reading realistic fiction?) I prefer Shipstead’s “happier” passages, so instead of the scene of the dead whale (which is depressing), I present this early memory at the summer cottage:

As children, Winn’s daughters had run through the house upon first arrival each summer to remind themselves of all its singularities and unearth relics of their own brief pasts. They made joyful reunions with the canvas sofas, the insides of closets, the views from all the windows, the books on fish and plants and birds, the bowls of sea glass, the wooden whale sending up its flat, wooden spout on the wall above Winn and Biddy’s bed, the flower patch where the sundial lay half concealed beneath black-eyed Susans, the splintery planks of the outdoor shower.

If these passages were more prevalent, I might have enjoyed Seating Arrangements a lot more. But this book is about the ugly truth of human nature, and in that sense, this book was great.

Conclusion

Seating Arrangements is significantly more bitter than sweet (and not bittersweet at all), and the characters are pitiful and unpleasant in their flaws. Shipstead’s simple and expressive writing evokes vivid images of both the good and bad of romantic and familial relationships, but in the end, the characters just put me in a bad mood.

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8 thoughts on “Review: Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead

  1. I get very frustrated by the way that so many modern novels tend to be SO depressing. Is that really what everyone’s life is like? Does everyone really just sit about thinking about only themselves, whining about how much better their life would be if they had a different spouse/more money/fewer children/more vacations? I don’t understand why “realistic fiction” only ever looks at depressing realities. My life is real, and it’s fantastic! I know lots of people whose realities are actually quite lovely, and not because they’re just pretending. But not only can we not have novels about those people, we aren’t even allowed to have novels about people who start out with a sad life and then it gets better. Nope, everyone has to end either status quo or even more depressed than they were at the beginning. Do people really enjoy reading these books, or do they just pretend to so they sound intelligent???

    I mean, wouldn’t this book have had *more* of an impact if Winn and Biddy got some counseling, if Livia realized there were broader and better horizons than the one she’d just passed, and if Daphne and her fiancee had some serious and intelligent discussions about how this pregnancy/future child is going to impact their marriage? That sounds, to me, like a truly gritty novel, one that digs not only into problems, but looks to solutions – something that shows that yes, people have problems, but also yes, people can work through them and come out of them stronger, smarter, and maybe even a bit more empathetic towards others with problems around them.

    Ah well. Your review just hit a nerve for me, since modern “realistic” fiction reeeeeeally annoys me with its insistence that, deep down, everyone is actually a mess with absolutely no hope of ever doing anything more than maybe putting a thin veneer of smiles over top.

    • I love this comment, Sarah! You totally read my mind. “Realistic fiction” has a negative connotation in my mind because of how depressing it is, and I completely agree with you that this genre doesn’t portray real life very well.

      And you know what? I kept waiting for one of those things you listed to happen to the characters in this book. The fact that the characters don’t really see the positive side of things or don’t learn from their mistakes is truly dismal, and I want to BELIEVE that there’s a happy ending for these characters, but that didn’t happen.

      I actually read another book recently in which the synopsis mentioned something about characters going down a road of self-destruction. (I should’ve realized it wasn’t going to turn out happy from that synopsis, right? Sometimes I should think more before I pick up a book, haha.) But maybe there’s a market out there of people who really like sad, depressing, abstract, and “messy” things. I think I’m going to back away now and pick some happier books to read next month. :S

      Also, is “slice of life” the same as “realistic fiction”? That’s the type of books I used to think meant happy, day-to-day stories, and I always think of Sarah Dessen when I think of “slice of life” (although I’ve never read her books, oops!).

      • haha, it’s kind of like musicals. Have you ever noticed that the ones that cover a relatively short period of time, like, say, ‘Seven Brides for Seven Brothers’ or ‘The Music Man’ tend to be a lot more upbeat than the ones that cover a long period of time, like ‘Carousel’ or ‘Showboat’? It’s as though people can write about being happy for a short period of time, but can’t imagine being happy throughout life – or maybe being happy for your whole life doesn’t make for interesting reading/watching. I suppose they’re lacking in drama?

        I guess for me, I don’t mind it when bad things happen to people, and I don’t mind reading about people’s struggles and difficulties. But if there’s no real resolution, and everyone just ends up staying basically the same person they were, then what’s the point of the story? Stories are about change and growth – about some event, small or large, that impacts someone and makes them different from who they were at the beginning. I get frustrated with a lot of modern fiction, especially, because that change *doesn’t happen* and then their work is hailed as being “deeply insightful and thought-provoking.” I think it’s lazy writing, and lazy reading – did you feel challenged by ‘Seating Arrangements’? I think that truly good writing touches something deep inside of us and makes us want to experience the same kind of change that’s happened to the protagonist. And I think that the real reason people like (or pretend to like) “realistic” fiction is because nothing about it makes them feel like they should be a better person – more, it tells them that most people are even whinier, dumber, lazier, and more selfish than they are (and hey, it’s “realistic” so it must be true!), so the reader is subtly encouraged to continue on just as they’ve been.

        Wow, I’m seriously ranting all of a sudden! haha, anyway, now you know how I REALLY feel! 😉

        • Ooh, I’ve actually never noticed that about musicals! (But my knowledge of musicals is also embarrassingly small – I haven’t heard of any of the ones you listed, eep!)

          In terms of feeling “challenged” by Seating Arrangements, it was a challenge trying to finish reading it, haha! 😛 But I like Shipstead’s writing style and the images her writing evokes, and those images did touch me. But it was just background scenery in a way, and the main plot didn’t make me want to experience anything.

          And your hypothesis is true! After reading this, I felt incredibly grateful that my life is more “wonderful” compared to those of the characters in the book. But it didn’t make me feel like a better person. These characters just aren’t relatable (SEE WHAT I DID THERE??) and it just leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

          • I suppose I’ve pretty well covered this territory, so I’ll just conclude by saying how nice it is to have someone else be annoyed by these ridiculously unrealistic realty novels!

  2. I don’t think I’d like this either! I find it so frustrating when characters are the cause of their own problems. I also get annoyed at authors who could have written anything they wanted and instead of writing a happy ending that would make people feel good, the write an ending which is just depressing. Definitely not a book I’ll be picking up!

    • I agree, this was definitely a frustrating read! My feelings didn’t change at all throughout the book, and when a book doesn’t have happy, uplifting moments or terribly disastrous moments along the way to make me change how I feel, I end up not knowing if I enjoyed the book or not. I end up wondering what the point of these books are… :/

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