1 August 2014
SEATING ARRANGEMENTS by Maggie Shipstead
While typing out my heading, I was reminded that today is Yorkshire Day. What better time to review a book set on the North East coast of America. Hmm … I should really improve my forward planning. I shall press on regardless.
You will know that following my run-in with Joanne Harris over sexism in the book industry, this month I have decided to look at two prize-winning female novelists. My second choice is SEATING ARRANGEMENTS by Maggie Shipstead. I have to say I approached this task rather warily, partly because of my experience with my first choice, A GIRL IS A HALF-FORMED THING (see below), and partly because of the prize Ms Shipstead won. I should say prizes as in addition to the 2012 Dylan Thomas Prize, her book also secured the L.A. Times First Novel Prize but it was the Dylan Thomas Prize which both attracted my attention and made me wary. Dylan Thomas was primarily known for his poetry and whilst that is something to be admired, I am not particularly fond of mixing poetry with literary prose.
Let me deal with that point straight away and say that my fear of finding a book laced with fancy writing was completely unfounded. It’s well-written and unlike A GIRL IS A HALF-FORMED THING, eminently readable. In fact, I was pleased to find the prose unremarkable and never an issue – all of which left me wondering why it won the prize in the first place, but there you are.
I had a second reason for choosing this book. It’s contemporary and as I said earlier, it’s set on the North East coast of America, an area my wife and I visited a couple of years ago. We took in Cape Cod and Nantucket, its lighthouses famously painted by Edward Hopper, its white-washed clapperboard houses and its grand colonial-style mansions complete with the obligatory flagpole and flag. Unlike the steamy heat of the Southern States which spawned such classics as A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, it’s potentially a much colder climate so I was curious as to how this might affect the people who live in such surroundings. I hoped that by reading Shipstead’s book it would give me an insight. Here’s what the blurb has to say.
The Van Meters have gathered at their family retreat on the New England island of Waskeke to celebrate the marriage of daughter Daphne to an impeccably appropriate young man. The weekend is full of lobster and champagne, salt air and practiced bonhomie, but long-buried discontent and simmering lust seep through the cracks in the revelry. Winn Van Meter, father-of-the-bride, has spent his life following the rules of the east coast upper crust, but now, just shy of his sixtieth birthday, he must finally confront his failings, his desires, and his own humanity.
Based on this we should expect a character portrayal of Mr Van Meter and the antics of a rich and dysfunctional New England family. Well, we certainly get the latter. Family gatherings have become a standard setting within which to expose unfortunate and unpalatable truths about one’s relations and this is no exception. In fact there’s nothing too shocking or unusual here and the only revelation which I found insightful was the passage dealing with the call-up for the Vietnam War. As a college student Van Meter describes how his upper-class contemporaries sought to avoid conscription. Whilst they may have felt that Communism was a evil that needed to be confronted (probably because it was a threat to their privileged way of life) they took the view that their own lives were too valuable to be wasted in confronting it and that was a job that should be undertaken by the lower orders. Contrast this with the unquestioned (and often unquestioning) leadership of our own upper-class in the Great War of 1914 which we are now recalling. That came as a surprise and I shall remember the book for that if nothing else.
As to other events, I am tempted to compare SEATING ARRANGEMENTS with Mark Haddon’s THE RED HOUSE which I reviewed earlier this year (3 Feb 2014) and which was also based around a family gathering. That had pace and the relationships were more tightly knit. Here things develop more slowly and the plot is altogether looser. Things happen, but without the same degree of consequence. We get two people caught making love – no surprise there except it’s in the garage. There’s an exploding whale – but I’m not sure of its significance. And finally, Van Meter is impelled to climb up onto the roof of his newly constructed mansion – but I don’t understand why, or why he comes back down. After all this extensive exposure, this was an ending I didn’t ‘get’ so neither did I ‘get’ the character of Van Meter and from that point of view the book for me was a failure. Perhaps you have to know something of these kind of people in the first place to be able to get under their skin. In which case, there’s no point in reading the book … Anyway, I reached the end feeling I might have missed something along the way. Perhaps I should read it again.
Final verdict? Well-written but slightly underwhelming, hence my three star rating.