By Maggie Shipstead
Alfred A. Knopf, $25.95, 320 pages
Maggie Shipstead’s debut novel, “Seating Arrangements,” begins with Winn Van Meter leaving his lovely Connecticut house in a car packed with groceries and his daughter’s wedding dress. He drives to the ferry to Waskege Island (which sounds a lot like Nantucket), where bride-to-be Daphne is preening and prepping for her wedding in the family’s vacation home. Winn would have preferred to have kept this beloved house private, but as expected of any father, he is going along with his womenfolk, who have gathered there for make-up rehearsals, manicures, hair-dos, and bonding. He’s aiding the festivities by cooking a lobster dinner for the assembled families - a prelude to the rehearsal dinner on the following night.
These events roll out at a leisurely pace as Ms. Shipstead notes irritations such as flowers sitting in the doorway right where anyone could trip over them. Stoical Winn does not entirely hide his exasperation, nor his outrage that the caretakers haven’t made a success of his vegetable garden, nor his annoyance with “make-up brushes … abandoned helter-skelter as though by the fleeing beauticians of Pompeii.” Frankly, he’s a bit of a pain. He’s humorless, pompous, unsympathetic, and he feels entitled. He especially feels entitled to membership in the Pequod Golf Club. Year after year he’s not invited to join.
Why? Winn believes Jack Fenn, his island neighbor and an old Harvard acquaintance, is standing in his way. Fenn’s son has just broken off a relationship with Winn’s younger daughter Livia, who was pregnant but miscarried.
Perhaps the Fenns bear the Van Meters a grudge. Or perhaps the grudge goes back to Harvard, where Winn prevented Jack getting into a prestigious club. Or maybe it lingers from the time when he used to date Jack’s wife. Not so. Livia enlightens him in one of their many spats, “They don’t want you to join. They don’t like you.” Readers have already realized this, but because Maggie Shipstead has allowed this truth to dawn only slowly, they can deplore Winn’s obtuseness and yet sympathize - a little bit - with his disappointment.
Such patience marks Ms. Shipstead’s narrative style. At times her descriptions of quotidia such as journeys about the island, or bridesmaids’ antics, or cocktail chatter seem dawdling, even repetitive, but they are the soil in which character blooms. Early in the novel, she writes, “A smoked mirror of sweetness and serenity hid Daphne’s inner workings, but Livia lived out in the open, blatantly so, the emotional equivalent of a streaker.” She adds little more to this summary, but slowly Daphne, her soon-to-be-born baby and her groom, Greyson ,materialize as the sweet center attracting the buzzing WASPs that populate the novel.
Livia rages around, hurt and angered by the loss of her boyfriend and their embryo child, a loose cannon of yearnings and emotions. Winn at first seems to have put yearnings behind him. He loves the trajectory that has taken him from Harvard to a New York banking career, picking up several club memberships, a suitable wife and appropriate houses and daughters as needed. He wants dignity, which he defines as “behaving as you are supposed to so people will respect you.” That means participating in prescribed social events, and above all, not exposing feelings.
In the way of many wedding weekends, the Van Meters weekend on Waskege is “full of opportunities for the wrong things to be said,” and Winn plummets well below the level of dignity he thinks appropriate - a key WASP adjective.
The jacket blurb of “Seating Arrangements” refers to the novel as “social satire.” This is not the case. Satirists wield sharp weapons of wit and irony to expose the errors of their characters and society. Their aim is reform. Maggie Shipstead is often witty and ironic, and like many satirists, she stands well back from her characters as she dissects their doings. But she doesn’t have the satirist’s killer thrust or reformist zeal. She doesn’t want to destroy - or even much reform - her well-heeled WASPs. She is happy just to swat at them when they get unduly pesky. At the end of “Seating Arrangements,” she lets them go their own ways. Daphne looks set for happiness. Winn might well reflect on his life. Livia, we hope, will find salvation in marine biology - a study that fascinates her.
Maggie Shipstead invests the narrator of her tale with serene wisdom, and she writes with controlled precision. She’s perhaps at her best detailing the longueurs of alcohol-infused parties of her status-conscious characters, or, frolicking at the opposite end of the emotional spectrum with the eruptions of rebels such as Livia or the best man, Sterling, who longs only to return to his life in Hong Kong.
“Seating Arrangements” is an amazingly assured first novel. If its subject matter suggests it as a summer read, its scrutiny of a social class recommends it as a novel to savor, and certifies Maggie Shipstead as a novelist to value.
• Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.