Blue Bloods

I can't remember what initially inspired me to put Maggie Shipstead's debut novel Seating Arrangements (2012) on my to-read list. It was probably a book review I stumbled across somewhere or a recommendation from my sister. Its description on Goodreads mentions that it's set on an exclusive New England island over a wedding weekend, and "provides a deliciously biting glimpse into the lives of the well-bred and ill-behaved". That synopsis put me on alert, because while it would be nice for a novel to live up to that description, it's exactly the sort of language that would be employed to sell a trashy, annoying wish-fulfillment or revenge-fantasy chicklit book; the Real Housewives in literary form.

I'll happily eat a little humble pie for my suspicions about Seating Arrangements, though, because it's easily one of the best books I've read so far this year. The story spans a mere three days, and centers on the wedding of an aristocratic, wealthy family's pregnant daughter. Actually, I say "centers", but the story is told from the points-of-view of just about everyone except the bride and groom. Chapters freely jump from the staunch, stiff-upper-lipped patriarch to the emotional younger sister to the boozy aunt to the blase, detached brother of the groom, and so on. The joining of two families - especially families obsessed with money and social position - is a situation ripe for conflict, and plenty takes place, both external and internal.

It would be extremely easy for a book that is related by characters with names like Winn, Biddy, and Dicky to become insufferable, but Shipstead never falls into the trap of making them overly snide or stuffy. None of the characters are wholly good or bad, but relatable people with understandable motivations. They may be the 1%, but even their problems that would strike us plebeians as petty - like not being able to join a particular golf club - are able to resonate. When the wedding weekend ends, curiously little has been resolved. I usually find that to be an appallingly lazy writing device, but for once, it struck me as a realistic conclusion. A novel may have the words "The End", but in life, our problems and victories extend long after the wedding reception winds down.

The upper crust is often portrayed in television and movies as being otherworldly, but in this remarkable book, social position doesn't shield anyone from jealousy or embarrassment or fear. No amount of money or breeding can separate you from the herd.

Seating Arrangements: A


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