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Review: Father of bride stumbles through prewedding march in 'Seating Arrangements' by Maggie Shipstead

When I was an English teacher, we always ended the school year with a ritual argument about summer reading. My erudite opponents claimed students should gird their loins and trudge through George Eliot's Middlemarch or some other Improving Literature. My free-spirited comrades and I countered that students should wander barefoot through the stacks, picking at whim whatever titles they might enjoy.

Many of us are still silently carrying out that argument when we pack our suitcases. For a sophisticated summer romp, I recommend Seating Arrangements, the first novel from Maggie Shipstead. Set over three warm days on a WASP-y island off the coast of New England, it's impeccably well-bred for vacation reading. The author is a graduate of Harvard and a dedicated student of the Darien club set, and once she grabs these characters by their pearl chokers and duck belts, she never lets go.

Like any classic romantic comedy, Seating Arrangements culminates in a wedding, but getting down the aisle almost kills the father of the bride. Winn Van Meter has spent his buttoned-down life on a rickety perch of the upper class, a persnickety, joyless man easily annoyed by others' misbehavior. His pregnant daughter's wedding is just the sort of awkward extravagance that tweaks his bow tie — "a family reunion and missile launch and state dinner all rolled into one."

Among the guests is a gorgeous young bridesmaid unburdened by qualms about hooking up with a married man like Winn. Before rice flies, there will be broken hearts and broken bones, falling bodies and exploding whales, consummations devoutly to be wished and interrupted.

Shipstead captures the bride's forlorn sister in all her wounded disappointments, and she's particularly astute in her portrayal of a young Egyptian bridesmaid who regards the troubles of the 1 percent with muted exasperation. What's more surprising is Shipstead's unnerving insight into the comic-tragedy of middle-aged men, that mixture of smothered envy, aspiration and lust that mutates into irritated superiority. (So I've heard.)

The sea breeze blowing through Seating Arrangements is Shipstead's affection for these spoiled people, her tender handling of their sorrows and longings, which you'll respond to even if you don't summer on Nantucket.

Seating Arrangements

By Maggie


Knopf, 320 pages, $25.95

Review: Father of bride stumbles through prewedding march in 'Seating Arrangements' by Maggie Shipstead 07/21/12 [Last modified: Saturday, July 21, 2012 4:31am]
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