Amazon Best Books of the Month, June 2012: Family reunions are ripe for farce and surreal events—especially when you add a wedding to the mix. Seating Arrangements takes place over the course of a three-day weekend that culminates with the wedding of the eldest Van Meter daughter, Daphne; a wedding hastened by Daphne’s unexpected pregnancy. Add in the grudges, longings, and lusts of the rather peculiar Van Meter family, which isn’t entirely secure with its old-money status, and you have a weekend teetering on the brink of familial implosion. The relationships between characters are handled deftly, and each misstep the characters make feels as inevitable as it does realistic. The end result is clear: this is an author to watch out for. --Malissa Kent
“Write what you know” is easily the most frequently quoted piece of writing advice. When I’m asked to describe my book (which, for the record, I’m extremely bad at), I usually mumble something about a dysfunctional WASPy family having a wedding on an island, and people either nod sagely and affirm, “Write what you know,” or ask, puzzled, “I thought you were supposed to write what you know?”
It’s an odd window on what other people think I know, and, to be honest, I don’t always know what I know. I’ve spent seventy percent of my life in California, including years zero to eighteen when I lived in beachy, suburban SoCal and was utterly oblivious to the existence of New England prep schools and social clubs.
Twenty percent of my life has happened in Massachusetts, including eight months on Nantucket, where I wrote the first draft of Seating Arrangements. (Let it be said that I do know about Atlantic resort islands, especially, and unhelpfully to my book, in the winter.) Miscellaneous, irrelevant locations get the last ten percent.
Depending on how literally someone interprets the commandment to write what you know, here are some questions that come up: as a Californian, how much can I really know about upper crust New England families like Van Meters? I’m not married, so how much can I really know about weddings? I’m not a sixty-year-old man, so is it wise to write from the point of view of one?
But I have an easy out. It’s that I don’t happen to be a believer in writing what you know. The idea of a world where people only write what they know sounds flat, grim, and unimaginative to me. I don’t believe in writing in ignorance, either.
Instead, I try to write what I wonder about. When I lived in the East, I wondered about the people I met who knew how to dress for garden parties when they were still in their teens, who had vast webs of generationally intertwined family friends, whose style of dress was crisp and culturally regimented and was in no way inspired by surfers or skaters or movie stars grocery shopping in velour sweatsuits. I wondered what it would have been like to go to boarding school, to use “summer” as a verb, to know how to sail.
For a while, I thought maybe these people could be categorized and diagrammed as neatly and pleasingly as in The Official Preppy Handbook. Then I met my friend Bailey’s grandmother, a formidable grand dame who was one of Jacqueline Kennedy’s bridesmaids. At first glance, she seems like the distilled essence of High WASP. She has a gift for fun of the drinking-and-dancing variety, a plummy voice, memberships in clubs of the long-established and selective variety, a house on the North Shore of Massachusetts full of ancestral oil paintings and classic wallpaper patterns, and a house in Maine full of hardback thrillers and ingredients for Bloody Marys. But what I loved about this particular woman was her surprisingly fantastic closet, which resembled what might have happened if the wardrobes from Dynasty and The Love Boat had been shut inside the Copacabana to breed in isolation for several decades. Behind the classic wallpaper, she kept a pirate’s horde of sequins, jewel-tone silks, shoulder pads, towering heels, heaps of bedazzled dresses and sweaters, and one very special zebra-print jumpsuit with matching belt.
In the end, I set about writing a character, Winn Van Meter, who doesn’t wonder much about anything and so misses out on a lot. I know him, even though he doesn’t exist. He spends his life in pursuit of correctness and an illusory social status, but there are a few zebra-print jumpsuits, metaphorically speaking, lurking behind his staid exterior. We all have our secret sequins.
J. Courtney Sullivan is the author of the New York Times best-selling novels Commencement and Maine. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, the Chicago Tribune, New York, Elle, Glamour, Allure, and Men’s Vogue, among others. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Seating Arrangements is bursting with perfectly observed characters and unforgettable scenes. This gorgeous, wise, funny, sprawling novel about family, fidelity, and social class is the best book I’ve read in ages.
Beautifully set on an exclusive island off the coast of Cape Cod, Shipstead’s debut sparkles with all the enticements of summer: you can practically smell the sea salt and see the ferries coming into harbor overflowing with weekend guests and their brimming bags of sunscreen and champagne. With an irresistible mix of wit and tenderness, the novel tells the story of what happens when the illustrious Van Meter family—Winn, the obtuse and perennially optimistic patriarch; his wife Biddie, and their beautiful daughters Livia (recently jilted by the son of Winn’s oldest rival) and Daphne (the bride, seven months pregnant)--plan a wedding at their beloved island retreat. Shipstead captures a family on the brink of implosion, brilliantly contrasting the novel’s placid setting with the hilarity and chaos that ensue when Winn embarks on a dangerous game of seduction with his daughter’s most lissome bridesmaid.
Maggie Shipstead is a born novelist, and Seating Arrangements is both wickedly smart and impossible to put down, a true summer pleasure.