I 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.
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!
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.
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.