Excerpted from Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead. Copyright © 2012 by Maggie Shipstead. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Q: SEATING ARRANGEMENTS is set on a Nantucket-like island off the coast of Cape Cod over a three-day wedding weekend. What about this elite social setting drew you in?
I grew up in Southern California. My parents are transplanted Midwesterners who don’t like gin or lobster (I know: weird). I didn’t know what a WASP was until I went to college, and then, through friends, distinctly non-friends, and a boyfriend, I got something of a crash course, which was, like most crash courses, intense but patchy and incomplete. I’m not a believer in the old “write what you know” chestnut. I like to write about what I want to know more about.
My first year of grad school, I was kicking around the question of what problems come with privilege and entitlement. For example: if you think all possibilities are rightfully open to you, whether in choosing a job or a mate, then how do you ever decide? How can you ever be content? I hadn’t come up with a way to approach these questions through fiction until a friend of mine had the good grace to be hit by a golf cart while riding his bike on Nantucket. (Naturally, he was wearing tennis whites.) His leg was cut badly enough to need stitches, but the driver of the golf cart wouldn’t apologize. This profoundly unsettled my friend. “You’re supposed to apologize,” he told me on the phone. “Even if something’s not your fault, you apologize so everyone feels better. It’s polite.” He was bewildered, not angry, and, while making sympathetic noises, I started thinking about a character who depends on the people around him to abide by strict rules of behavior and whose fragile world is thrown into disarray when they don’t. I knew I wanted to explore and maybe critique the very, very First World problems of such a character, and I knew I wanted to use a certain crisp, clean, preppy New England vacation aesthetic as a background for behavior that was neither crisp nor clean. So I wrote a very bad short story, and then, two years later, I lived on Nantucket for eight months (let the record show that they did not include the summer months) and wrote the first draft of the novel.
Q: Throughout SEATING ARRANGEMENTS, it often feels like we’re getting voyeuristic glimpses in to the habits of the well-bred and ill-behaved. Where did you draw inspiration for these characters and their antics?
The characters are all primarily invented, but I accessorized them with bits and pieces borrowed from real people: choice phrases, descriptive details, a delightfully strange first name. Sometimes a name or a line of dialogue is enough to give a character shape, especially at the beginning. Then, the more you write about a character, the more information you have about what he or she would do, think, and feel in any given situation, and their antics start to flow from their personalities. When you go back to the beginning of a draft to revise, you suddenly know this person better than you did when you started and can see all sorts of psychological inconsistencies and moments where the tone wanders. The borrowed bits and pieces get crusted over with layers of invention and eventually lose all connection to that poor real-life source who was foolish enough to talk to a writer at a party.
Q: Patriarch Winn Van Meter is a Harvard graduate who is obsessed with membership in all the right clubs. As a Harvard graduate yourself, was club membership something people took very seriously?
Harvard has an odd, retro system of social clubs called final clubs that are exclusively male, are not funded or regulated by the university, own spectacular Cambridge real estate, and admit members through a selective process called punching. From what I observed, membership was a matter of absolute and dire seriousness for some guys, but others had no interest in joining a club or joined for reasons that didn’t go much deeper than wanting to have a place to hang out with their friends. A handful of female final clubs have been founded over the past twenty or so years, but because they don’t have the same alumni resources or long traditions as the men’s clubs, they don’t seem to confer the same status or occupy the same place in the collective Harvard imagination. There’s an ongoing debate about the final clubs that will probably never end. Some people think they’re incubating and perpetuating misogyny, racism, economic segregation, homophobia, and other very bad things. Other people argue that club members have special and unique bonds and create opportunities for one another. I don’t begin to have the answers—I think, at the very least, it’s problematic that men control so much of the social space at Harvard, but I also see how, for lots of members, the clubs are harmless fun. Truth be told, I was just glad to be a girl so I didn’t have to worry about getting punched or not.
Q: To the horror of his daughter, to whom he is toasting, Winn’s wedding toast equates marriage with death. Was this intended as farcical or tragic and have you previously experienced an awkward wedding toast such as this one?
I’ve never been in the audience for quite such a downer of a wedding toast, but I would say a solid 30-40% of the ones I have witnessed would qualify as awkward. Most people aren’t entirely comfortable with public speaking, and when you mix in a lot of emotion and alcohol, people can be unpredictable. I’ve seen a mother-of-the-groom catalog the groom’s ex-girlfriends. I’ve seen a maid-of-honor catalog the bride’s ex-boyfriends. I’ve seen a best man rewrite the lyrics of “American Pie” to be an uncomfortable seven minute string of rhyming insults about the groom. I’m generally ambivalent about the prospect of having a wedding of my own, but, if I have one, toasts will be forbidden.
Q: There's a great scene with an exploding whale. Does that actually happen??
It does! And let that be a lesson to us all: don't get too close to a decomposing whale carcass. When I was in high school, I read an article in the Los Angeles Times about a scientist who had been killed while performing a necropsy on a whale. Gas built up inside the corpse; it exploded, and this poor man was impaled by a shard of bone. Not surprisingly, the story stuck with me, and when I started drafting Seating Arrangements, I decided early on to include an exploding whale. I didn’t have the plot mapped out at all, but I was strangely confident there would be an opportunity somewhere to work in the whale.
If you search on YouTube, you’ll find some whale explosions, natural and otherwise. One of my favorites is a classic news clip from 1970 about local authorities in Oregon who didn’t know what to do with a dead grey whale and decided to blow it up with dynamite . . . too much dynamite. Huge chunks of blubber rained from the sky and crushed cars and terrified all the spectators who’d come out to see the blast. Whales are just so impossibly large that I think there’s something confrontational and compellingly grotesque about them when they’re dead. You can’t ignore a dead whale; it’s a memento mori on a gigantic scale.
Q: What writers and novels inspire you?
There are too many to list! Day to day, I tend to read a lot of nonfiction and am not great at staying on top of current fiction, but I have a shelf of books at the ready for when I’m having trouble writing. I’ll pick one up and read for a while, and often just a few pages of someone’s marvelous prose will sort of get me in tune. The contents of the shelf rotates, but some standbys are The Great Gatsby (duh), Brideshead Revisited, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Lolita, Housekeeping, To the Lighthouse, Pride and Prejudice, Loving, The Virgin Suicides, The Early Stories by John Updike, Selected Stories by Alice Munro, and The Stories of John Cheever. Lately I’ve been on simultaneous A.S. Byatt and John Le Carré kicks, who write about very different subjects but are both master stylists and are inspiring me to aspire to use the omniscient voice. I’m also reading Michael Chabon’s new book, and I’ve been thinking about how much I love the way the humor and beauty in his work starts on the diction level. He routinely writes sad sentences that are made funny by one unexpected word or vice versa. Reading his fiction reminds me that every word matters.
Q: When did you first realize you loved to write?
Any day now. Writing is difficult and takes forever, and I’m constantly aware that I should always be looking harder and thinking harder. I don’t dislike the act of writing—and I would feel lost and useless if I stopped doing it—but when things are going well, the experience is more of focus than of enjoyment. I love books, and I do love certain things about the process of constructing characters and stories, like when the solution to some structural problem suddenly becomes clear and I get a boost of momentum. I also love the challenge of inventing characters who seem real to me, and then I love trying to see through their eyes. The opportunity to be someone else is one of the great pleasures of reading, and I’ve been surprised that it’s a pleasure of writing as well.
On a practical level, I started writing fiction in college more or less on a whim and then applied to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop the year after graduation also pretty much on a whim. When I got in, I immediately became much more serious about improving my work, but I can’t remember any moment where I knew I wanted to be a writer. It was more that I slowly figured out I didn’t want to be anything else.
Q: What are you working on next?
I just finished a novel that’s mostly about ballet. It’s all in present tense but covers thirty years. There’s a Soviet defector. There’s Southern California and Paris and New York. There’s some high drama. But, other than that, I’m terrible at describing my own projects and should say no more. Next I’d like to finish a couple short stories I’ve been toying with, one about the Paris catacombs and one about an ocean liner. I like to mix it up.
“Beneath the surface of this summery romp lie animosities, well-paced sexual suspense and a clash between appearances and authenticity. . . . Waltzlike.” —The New York Times Book Review
"The novel I've been recommending this summer to anyone, female or male, who's looking for the trifecta—a good story that's beautifully written and both hilarious and humane." —Maureen Corrigan, NPR
“This gorgeous, wise, funny, sprawling novel about family, fidelity, and social class, is the best book I’ve read in ages.” —J. Courtney Sullivan, author of Maine
“Shipstead’s weave of wit and observation continually delights. I wouldn’t be surprised if someday she trades her Lilly Pulitzer for something from Joseph Pulitzer.” —Ron Charles, The Washington Post
“Seating Arrangements delightfully and poignantly upends the WASP idyll….Sparkles while it slays.” —USA Today
“Maggie Shipstead is an outrageously gifted writer, and her assured first novel, Seating Arrangements, is by turns hilarious and deeply moving.” —Richard Russo, author of That Old Cape Magic
“Shipstead doesn’t just follow in [John Updike and Jane Smiley’s] footsteps; she beats a distinctive and dazzling path of her own. The world has found a remarkable, humane new voice to explain us to ourselves” —Allison Pearson, author of I Don’t Know How She Does It
“Whipsmart and engaging.” —O, The Oprah Magazine
“A wickedly clever tragicomedy of manners that unfolds with the plotting of a juicy mystery and the sharp eye of someone only too aware of the subtle, seemingly pointless class distinctions within the one percent.” —Slate
“Shipstead seems at home in the Waspy milieu of private schools and their preening, privileged attendees. . . . A keen-eyed rendering of America’s self-invented caste.” —The New Yorker
“This is one of those rare debut novels that neither forsakes plot for language nor language for plot. It is gratifying on every scale.” —The Boston Globe
“Precise, skilled, quick-witted, and warm-hearted.” —The Millions
“Dead-on delightful. . . . A champagne-fueled, saltwater-scented comedy of upper-crust New England manners and mores.” —National Geographic Traveler
“A wise, sophisticated and funny novel about family, fidelity, class and crisis.”—Marie Claire
“A pitch-perfect debut from a master storyteller, Seating Arrangements is a rich and deep work: a smart, consuming novel that manages also to be delightfully funny. A romp of a book, with whales and weddings and wealth, it is, at its heart, a warning against the empty seductions of status and exclusivity.” —Justin Torres, author of We the Animals
“Elegant, delightful. . . . Shipstead’s sentences simmer and crackle on the page.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“[A] mordant, ferociously clever comedy of manners.” —The Guardian (London)
“Delightful. . . . Seating Arrangements brims with sharp observations about love, lust, family, and the real meaning of marital bliss.” —Entertainment Weekly
“[A] spicy debut.” —Real Simple
“Funny and dark and poignant—sometimes all at once. Shisptead is a gifted storyteller whose richly realized characters and sweetly flowing prose coalesce into a tale that is by parts sweet and sharp, humorous and heartbreaking. It’s an auspicious debut by an undeniably talented writer.”—The Maine Edge
“Wonderfully juicy, frothy and delightful.” —Cape Cod Times
“A delicious comedy of manners . . . that has fun with all things rich, all things wedding and all things inappropriate.” —Asbury Park Press
“Zestful yet acerbic. . . . For all its madcap quirkiness, Shipstead’s adroit escapade artfully delivers a poignant reflection on the enduring if frustrating nature of love, hope, and family.”—Booklist
“[Shipstead’s] book places a magnifying glass over classic New England upper-crust culture. . . . Whether reading Seating Arrangements is like looking into a mirror or peeking through the window, the gin-soaked escapades are difficult to turn away from.” —The Phoenix (Portland, ME)
1. “The river bears no empty bottles, sandwich papers, / Silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends / Or other testimony of summer nights. The nymphs are departed. / And their friends, the loitering heirs of City directors; / Departed, have left no addresses.” This is the novel’s epigraph, from “The Wasteland,” T. S. Eliot’s epic poem of ruin and desolation. How does this verse relate to Seating Arrangements? Why has the author elected to place it at the front of her novel?
2. Winn is obsessed with status, with matters of appearance and pedigree and joining all the right clubs. What do you think the author thinks of Winn? What did you think of him? Is he sympathetic? Does your view of him change over the course of the novel? Do you think Winn himself changes or grows over the course of the novel?
3. How is Daphne different from her father? Is her world view different or is it the same? How do Daphne’s and Livia’s values differ?
4. Discuss Dominique’s role in Seating Arrangements. How is she different from the other characters in the novel, and how does this alter the reader’s perspective?
5. Discuss the scene where the whale explodes. What do you think the whale symbolizes for the author? What do you think the explosion is meant to dramatize or represent?
6. On page 164, Biddy draws herself a bath and spends a quiet moment reflecting on her predicament and her marital expectations after Winn’s inescapably obvious attentions to Agatha following her fall from the deck. “The obviousness was what she could not tolerate. She had known what she was when she married him, had expected to be the kind of wife who looked the other way from time to time, but she had also expected him to be discreet. And he had been. She assumed there had been other women, but she had never come across any evidence of them, which was all she asked. A simple request, she had thought: cheap repayment for her forbearance, her realism, her tolerance. At times his discretion had been so complete she had allowed herself to believe maybe there hadn’t been others, but she didn’t like to risk being foolish enough to believe in something as unlikely as her husband’s fidelity.” What is Biddy’s view of marriage? Does the author share this view? Do you? Is fidelity essential to a good marriage? What exactly is a good marriage, in your view? In Shipstead’s?
7. Aunt Celeste brings levity, acerbic wit, and a rather dark personal history to a host of subjects that are often treated sanctimoniously, among them, romantic love and the possibility of living happily ever after. What is Celeste’s contribution to the Van Meter family, and to the novel as a whole? What is your opinion of her? The author’s?
8. In what way does the Duff family differ from the Van Meter family? How are they aware of their differences, whether social, financial, or historical? Do you think the author is pointing out their differences primarily, or their similarities?
9. On page 170, Winn recollects a story he was told one night at the Vespasian, while still a young man, about his grandfather’s inheritance. How is this story significant, and how has it informed the truths and myths of his family history?
10. In chapter eleven, Livia and Francis have a fascinating conversation in which the author provides several nuanced reflections on varieties of love: maternal, filial, familial, romantic. How do these ruminations embody—or shape—our perception of love and its obligations, in the world of Seating Arrangements and in the world at large?
11. Following the aforementioned conversation, Francis says to Livia, “Another reason I like you is that I think we have similar roles in our families. We’re the critical ones. We represent a threat to their way of life, a new order.” What does he mean? How, in particular, might Livia be perceived as a threat to her family’s way of life? Is she more or less of an iconoclast than her aunt Celeste?
12. Discuss the debacle of Winn’s bridal toast in which he equates marriage with death. Do you think the author intends the reader to perceive this as farcical or tragic?
13. Look at the end of chapter seventeen, which closes with Livia listening to her parents in their bedroom and the line, “Their door shut behind them, and she heard the murmur of their voices, the unknowable language they spoke only to each other.” How does this recast our sense of Winn and Biddy’s marriage?
14. Discuss the epilogue and, in particular, the final image of Daphne and Winn dancing. What note does the author strike at the novel’s conclusion? How has the novel, and the family, recovered from its various catastrophes and regained its balance after the tawdriness of the events that preceded it and the spectacularly deflating effect of the patriarch’s wedding toast? Is this a happy ending? Do you think the author intends it to be so?
15. Is it surprising, given the novel’s themes and its central voice—an older, patrician male—to discover that its author is a twenty-eight-year-old woman? Why or why not?