320pp, paperback, £12.99
Reviewed by Caroline Sanderson
For some reason, I initially misread the title of this brilliant debut novel as Sleeping Arrangements. But actually, it turned out a not entirely inappropriate Freudian slip.
Seating Arrangements delves deliciously into the lives of the well-to-do Van Meter family whose apparently ordered world is so regimented that a tennis ball hangs from a string in the garage to show the exact position where a car should be parked. The action of the novel is also neatly confined, taking place over the two days immediately preceding the wedding of Princeton-educated Daphne Van Meter to affable Greyson Duff. Daphne is already seven months pregnant, a departure from convention that perturbs her dyed-in-the-WASP father, Winn. Brought up to revere all the certainties of the clubbable East Coast ‘aristocracy’, Winn made an eminently suitable marriage to the unflappable Biddy. She – cool, collected and clad in plain linen – is now masterminding arrangements (seating and otherwise) for her daughter’s impending nuptials at the family’s venerable holiday home on the fictional island of Wakeke. Shipstead based Wakeke on the real Massachusetts island of Nantucket where she took up residence whilst writing the book.
This island sojourn perhaps explains the maritime tang which permeates the story, from the lavish lobster banquet the Van Meters throw for the wedding principals two days before the wedding to the sperm whale which perishes on a nearby beach. Its sad demise particularly distresses marine biologist Livia, the younger of the Van Meter’s two daughters, whose love life has been similarly washed up since her dumping, devastated and pregnant, by the son of another establishment island family. Her subsequent abortion has left her feeling keelhauled in the face of her sister’s contented fecundity, particularly when she keeps being told that there are ‘other fish in the sea’.
The wedding gathering pitches the Van Meters into the company of the extended Duff clan, which includes Greyson’s three brothers; and of Daphne’s three closest friends who are to act as bridesmaids. As these maids of honour descend on his house with their weekend paraphernalia (‘Make-up brushes were everywhere, abandoned helter-skelter as though by the fleeing beauticians of Pompeii’), Winn struggles to quell his stirrings for one of them, the earthily attractive Agatha for whom he has long burnt a sexual torch. As the party heats up and a lake of alcohol is consumed, cautions are thrown to the offshore winds, true colours are run up flagpoles, and, yes, sleeping arrangements come to preoccupy the characters rather than those for seating. By the time Daphne and Greyson make it up the aisle, the carapaces of convention with which the Van Meters have hitherto armoured themselves have been torn away, leaving them as exposed as the unfortunate lobsters devoured by their guests the previous evening.
Shipstead, a native of Orange County, California, and a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, has written a novel as beadily perceptive of the tides of family life as anything by Anne Tyler or Carol Shields. Though the story focuses primarily on Winn and Livia, each character has a turn in the limelight, as Shipstead deftly orchestrates a slow reveal of the events which have led up to the present conjunction of egos, erotic tensions and emotional allergies. This is, moreover, my favourite kind of book; the kind which frequently halts you in your tracks, and bids you go back and savour whole sentences again. I frequently found myself exclaiming in delight at the precision with which Shipstead nails her characters. Duff grandmother Oatsie, who is ‘imperious, brusque and given to non-sequitur’ tells Livia, ‘You’d make a wonderful lawyer. You have lovely hair.’ Meg, daughter of Jack Fenn, Winn’s social nemesis, stands in sneakers which ‘nose each other like a pair of kissing trout’. Daphne’s exotic friend Dominique shucks corn, her eyebrows ‘curved in tildes of concentration’. Celeste, Biddy’s dipsomaniac sister, ‘hovers vampirically’ as the Duffs unpack flasks of special recipe Bloody Mary. Sterling, the louchest of the Duff brothers knocks back a whisky, and his eyes turn dark as if ‘Oatsie had kicked his plug out of the wall’.
What I also love about this novel is that Shipstead’s comedy, however razor-witted, is never vicious, but rather brooks a deep, psychological understanding of her characters. Her principals are shown in all their complexity, and the author’s attention to just the right details means that we are never at a loss as to what brought them to the states they are in.
All this and cultured pearls of wisdom too. Dominique; coolly observant, and the nearest thing in the novel to a Greek chorus, is moved to utter the wonderful maxim that female friendship is ‘one-tenth prevention and nine-tenths clean-up’.
I will be astonished if I read a novel I admire more all year. In spite of getting the title wrong.