Book 109: Seating Arrangements



"Transformation captivated Livia, but she was squeamish at the thought of changing her own life. To change would be to admit she'd been going about things all wrong. Her people noticed change, discussed it, speculated about its superficiality, its vanity. The only kind of change they understood was the flickering skin of the octopus, blending in with its surroundings, or the real estate flipping of the hermit crab, always shopping for a slightly roomier prison."

Dates read: December 1-9, 2016

Rating: 5/10

I went to a selective university, where I changed my major right before my senior year and finished all of my degree requirements in two semesters. I took the LSAT with no prep classes. I went to law school. I took the Michigan bar exam (with prep classes, which is definitely why I passed it). I was a practicing litigator. I've made two cross-country moves to places where I knew virtually no one. All of these were stressful. And I'd do all of them again before I'd plan another wedding.

Don't get me wrong, my wedding ended up being lovely and really fun (and I have the pictures to prove it thanks to my amazing photographer Lauren Lindley, who I will shamelessly plug because it's my blog and I can and she travels everywhere to shoot, you guys!), but all the intricacies of planning it were awful. Interestingly enough, it's not the bride in Maggie Shipstead's Seating Arrangements who's struggling during the wedding weekend. Even seven months pregnant, Daphne Van Meter is laid-back and serene. It's her family that are the ones having a hard time.

Her father Winn is obsessed with both his failure to attain membership in an exclusive golf club and his long-standing crush on Daphne's friend and bridesmaid, Agnes. Meanwhile, younger sister Livia is still reeling from a bad breakup. Another bridesmaid, Dominique, is trying to figure out if she still belongs in the New England WASPy world of her boarding school youth, when she and Daphne became friends. Over the course of the long weekend, the tensions roiling beneath the surface of the otherwise picturesque island gathering begin to escape their usual repression. There's even a literal explosion!

Let's start with the good. Shipstead's prose is graceful and insightful, neither spare nor flowery but confident and perceptive. Quality writing can make up for a lot of ills, and Shipstead's is damn good. The characters she creates feel real, and Livia and Dominique are sympathetic and interesting...especially Livia, whose raw heartbreak reminded me of my own tumultuous collegiate relationship. But where the book was held back from greatness or even real re-readability was its focus on Winn, by far the least compelling character in the book. Like the others, he's drawn with psychological verisimilitude: everything she reveals about why he is the way he is makes sense. But that doesn't change the fact that the way he is is unpleasant and off-putting, and I didn't enjoy reading about him. Since his storyline makes up about 40-50% of the book, that was a real problem. I'm not necessarily opposed to unlikable characters, but I want them to be complicated and interesting. Winn is just a pompous social-climbing blowhard going through a midlife crisis. There's nothing special there. For people who enjoy books about rich people behaving badly, you'll probably like this book. And for the rest of us, there's still a lot of good here. But for me, it mostly made me more interested in reading Shipstead's other work.

Tell me, blog friends...do you like reading about rich people behaving badly?

One year ago, I was reading: The Guineveres (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: Hood

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