So it turns out that men in trousers embroidered with little whales are exactly how I expected men in embroidered trousers to be. Or so Maggie Shipstead has me believe in her dry, cutting New England romp, Seating Arrangements.
It’s the story of Winn Van Meter, who’s heading for his family’s retreat on the pristine island of Waskeke. Normally a haven of calm, for the next three days Winn’s sanctuary will be overrun by tipsy revelers as he prepares for the marriage of his daughter, Daphne, to the entirely appropriate Greyson.
“The sight of his face was a comfort, even the chin someone had once called weak. He arranged his features into an expression of patriarchal calm and tried to memorize how it felt – this was how he wanted to look for the next three days.”
As Winn’s wife, Biddy, executes the carefully planned wedding celebrations, around them there’s all sorts of goings-on – Winn’s youngest daughter, Livia, who has recently had her heart broken by Teddy Fenn, the son of her father’s oldest rival, sets her eyes on the best man; and Winn, instead of reveling in his patriarchal duties, is tormented by his long-standing crush on Daphne’s beguiling bridesmaid, Agatha. Throw in some hard-drinking house guests and the opening of old wounds and it makes for a truly terrific read.
Winn is quite simply a git – full of self-importance and yet so much self-doubt. He’s a social-climber, opinionated and *insert a more refined word than ‘dick’ here*. He’s the character you get to know the best and, when things don’t go his way, he is so indignant – could the chip on that shoulder get any bigger?! Shipstead may have wanted the reader to keep cheering him on but I was thinking ‘Suck it up, you silly old man’ (note that ‘liking’ a character is not important to me and doesn’t change how much I enjoy a book).
Shipstead has a keen eye for detail and cleverly alternated between using it sparingly and using lots. There’s an interesting incident in the garage that is a nice example of her ‘less is better’ approach to a scene but I won’t say anymore or it would constitute a spoiler. In contrast, Livia’s description of her new in-laws reads -
“Dicky and Maude lived within familiar confines: the Ivy League, the Junior League, The Social Register, Emily Post, Lilly Pulitzer, the Daughters of the American Revolution, Windsor knots, cummerbunds, needlepointed tissue box covers, L.L. Bean, Memorial Day, Labor Day, waterfowl-based décor.”
This description could be considered a straightforward list but the careful assemblage of small, rich detail tells the reader exactly who Dicky and Maude are.
There are incidents in the book that border on the ludicrous (and I did think that the bride, Daphne, was remarkably calm through it all) but keep in mind that it’s a satire. The ending was superb – as my Nan used to say “…they got their just desserts.”
4/5 Bad behaviour is so irresistible, isn’t it?
Win finally cracks at the rehearsal dinner… just like the top of the Cream Brûlée they are enjoying for dessert. My pick is Passionfruit Brûlée, found here at West Coast Cooking.