Cannonball Read 5, Book 93: Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead

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Apparently this is a “stunning debut” and an “irresistible social satire”. Well, if you say so. I found it to be a forced and incoherent novel about a bunch of rich people where one of their clan is getting married. If there was satire being aimed for here, then for me Shipstead missed the target by a very large margin.

The novel spans three days in the life of Winn Van Meter as his daughter prepares to marry. The wedding is taking place in their family retreat on the New England island of Waskeke. Around Winn, there’s an extensive supporting cast of family, extended family, bridesmaids, groomsmen and so on and this is the first issue I had. There’s just too many people, the majority of whom are not really defined enough to stick in the memory, so a few times I was all “wait, who? Oh him”. Not really ideal.

Less ideal is that the characters Shipstead does lavish some time and detail on, well, you kind of wish she hadn’t. Winn is tiresome in the extreme, his wife Biddy is a blank, the soon to be wedded daughter Daphne is every bit as monomaniacal as you would expect and as for his other daughter Livia, well, she’s a real treat. Hideously whiny and annoying, she mopes about the novel after being dumped (who can blame him?) and intending to rebound fuck the ex boyfriend out of her system (charming). At one point, Shipstead says something like “Livia aimed for a tone of mock haughtiness, but fears she came off as shrill” and not only is that spot on the money for Livia, but it’s also pretty on the nose for the tone of this novel. Aims for satire, lands on annoying. As my dear friend Jabberbookie┬ásaid, the characters are all so awful, you don’t really care what happens to them.

On top of that, Shipstead throws in a lot of flashback and reminiscing, without a huge amount of success. It isn’t always clear when the narrative has returned to the present day, which makes for a slightly muddled paragraph before you can work out where you are. There are some great similes peppered throughout the book, but even they are undone by the notion that an envelope with just three pills in it would be “rattling”. My hopes were high for this, they have been dashed.

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