The basics: Set over one wedding weekend at their New England island house, Seating Arrangements is the story of the Van Meter family. Patriarch Winn is obsessed with joining a prestigious club on the island, his wife Biddy has planned the wedding with immense detail, his daughter Daphne is getting married while very pregnant, and his daughter Livia is still reeling from the break-up with her boyfriend Teddy, the son of Winn's college girlfriend and current nemesis.
My thoughts: When I read Astonish Me, I called Shipstead's prose "astonishingly good" and having "so much interior insight." I can easily say the same about Seating Arrangements. In the early pages, this description that could easily be throw-away language took my breath away: "Freight trains slid across trestle bridges; distant jetties reached like arms into the sea. Pale rainbows of sunlight turned circles across the windshield." Yes, I enjoy the proper use of a semicolon more than the average person (and likely more than the average reader), so I always perk up when I see one, but that passage alerted me to read each word carefully. As I continued to read, I was struck by how precise each word, observation and moment seemed.
The action of this novel takes place over one weekend, but these characters, the Van Meters and the bridal party, have histories going back many years. It matters which backstories are told and when, and Shipstead keeps peeling back the layers of their shared pasts as the weekend edges on. There's a beautiful depth to Shipstead's storytelling and characters, particularly in their moments of pain.
Favorite passage: "Getting married doesn't change you. Marriage changes you, though. Imperceptibly. Over time. You don't notice the change until you are changed. I don't know who that person is, back there. I mean the person I was before I got married. I thought I'd stayed the same all along, but I'm beginning to think I've turned into someone else. Or maybe just everything around me has changed."
The verdict: Seating Arrangements is a beautifully written exploration of family, love, and expectations. Shipstead deftly handles a large cast of characters, and while Winn is ostensibly the main character, the others are developed just as well. I loved the time I spent with this novel and its remarkably confident and brilliant author.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 433 pages
Publication date: June 12, 2012
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