A “strange aura” has descended on Waskeke, the fictional New England island where Maggie Shipstead has set her debut novel, “Seating Arrangements.’’ When paterfamilias Winn Van Meter arrives by ferry, the house smells, as it does every summer, of salt and mildew, but there has been a definite atmospheric shift — one of Winn’s own projecting. The reasons for it are not lost on him: His eldest (and pregnant) daughter, Daphne, is getting married that weekend, and the property is overrun with pre-celebratory chaos. It’s a classic father-of-the-bride sort of unsettlement, and with it will come, as we’ll soon see, a series of domestic disasters.
Daphne’s younger sister, Livia — recently graduated and even more recently jilted — is still convinced that her college boyfriend, who just so happens to be the son of her father’s nemesis, will return to her. She talks about him incessantly, “her eyes shining with wounded zealotry,” to anyone who will listen, which is more often than not her mother, Biddy.
Biddy, in turn, is swamped with planning details and distressed by the presence of Agatha, an oversexed friend of Daphne’s who floats about the house in a perpetual state of dishabille and flirts shamelessly with Winn. About them buzz guests who drift in, drink too much, and cause spats — only to disappear through a screen door. “Seating Arrangements’’ is a self-consciously claustrophobic novel corralled by constrictions: The dilemmas it documents are about a nuclear family; the setting is a literal island; and the time-frame — three gin-drenched days — is short.
Though Shipstead’s omniscient narrator pans across each family member’s perspective, it’s Winn’s that we occupy most, and she’s given him the kind of existential dissatisfaction usually reserved in fiction for female characters. Winn, for whom “each day [is] a platform for accomplishment,” has a highly developed sense of dignity, one that conflates taste and morality. Ostentatious homes, eccentric mannerisms, public altruism — all offend him. He even sees his own wife as a lifestyle choice (“She was so entirely the kind of person he should be married to that he loved her, in part, out of gratitude for her very appropriateness”). With so many self-imposed rules, it’s satisfyingly easy to predict just how much his identity will crumble when he finally allows himself to break one. Which, of course, he does. And then some.
This is one of those rare debut novels that neither forsakes plot for language nor language for plot. It is gratifying on every scale: We urgently care about how the tangled narratives will resolve, as well as how Shipstead herself will handle her characters’ most introspective moments. The novel is teeming with the sort of casual philosophizing that encourages passage-underlining and earnest recommendation, and there’s no shortage of delightful figurative language either.
“Seating Arrangements’’ can be needlessly cartoonish, however, its dialogue sometimes stilted (“Where did he prep?”), and its set pieces (LL Bean, waterfowl-based décor, Emily Post) bundled in cliche. But WASP signifiers aren’t resorted to out of laziness; they seem, rather, like the traces of some former premise that Shipstead started out with and then quickly transcended. Though her characters might spend much of the novel wrecked on gin-based drinks, Shipstead remains, throughout all of “Seating Arrangements,’’ undeniably gimlet-eyed.