Recap: The wedding between Daphne Van Meter and Greyson Duff is expected to be the upstanding New England social event of the summer. The two are delightfully perfect together, two beautiful, Ivy League graduates; twenty-somethings that come from the same stature of well-off New England families. One problem: the bride is pregnant, very pregnant, seven months along to be exact. Another problem: on the weekend of the wedding — during which the novel takes place — all of Daphne’s bridesmaids are staying at the Van Meters’ New England beach house with Daphne’s parents, Winn and Biddy. Included in the bridesmaid bunch are Livia, the bride’s sister; Dominique, the exotic former roommate; Piper, the meek friend; and Agatha, the friend who also happens to be a sexy tease to all men everywhere. Oh wait — another problem: the bride and groom’s families are getting together during the two nights leading up to the wedding, and also included at those events are the groom’s four brothers the bride’s drunk aunt.
From the beginning, the reader is informed that Daphne and Livia’s father, Winn, may be harboring feelings for Agatha, the sexy bridesmaid. We also learn Winn once dated the groom’s mother. We then learn he also once kissed his sister-in-law. Throw in the three brothers of the groom, and it’s unclear which will be more of a disaster — the night before the rehearsal dinner, the night of the rehearsal dinner or the night of the actual wedding. Can the wedding planner keep the clandestine scandals of the weekend separate from the weekend’s marital plans? Debatable.
Analysis: On the surface, Seating Arrangements sounds like an exciting, juicy, scandalous beach read, and it is. But it’s so much more than that. It feels like a classic, and is scandalous in the way that Edith Wharton (The Age of Innocence, released in 1921) novels are scandalous. Author Maggie Shipstead writes the novel in such a literary way, I kept questioning whether it takes place modern-day or in an earlier time period.
As much as the story seems like it would be about a wedding, very little is about the wedding or the bride and groom. We learn more about the bride’s father, Winn, his relationship with his wife, and his relationship with his younger daughter, Livia. This is the story of a man who’s a little neurotically insane, a man who’s trying to understand all the women in his life as he — even at age 60 — is still working to figure out what kind of man, husband, and father he wants to be versus what he should be. It’s a story about family, growing old, growing apart, letting go, and learning to love the people you’re obligated to love, even if it hurts.
MVP: Livia. She is such a sad little creature, and she has so much growing up to do. But there’s something there — a natural sense of defiance and strength that makes the reader believe, especially at the end, that she’s going to be okay.