Top critical review
So Much Man Drama
Reviewed in the United States on January 3, 2018
I have done many stressful things in my life, including passing a bar exam, but planning my wedding was the most stressful of them all. Interestingly enough, it's not the bride in Maggie Shipstead's Seating Arrangements who's struggling during the wedding weekend. Even seven months pregnant, Daphne Van Meter is laid-back and serene. It's her family that are the ones having a hard time.
Her father Winn is obsessed with both his failure to attain membership in an exclusive golf club and his long-standing crush on Daphne's friend and bridesmaid, Agnes. Meanwhile, younger sister Livia is still reeling from a bad breakup. Another bridesmaid, Dominique, is trying to figure out if she still belongs in the New England WASPy world of her boarding school youth, when she and Daphne became friends. Over the course of the long weekend, the tensions roiling beneath the surface of the otherwise picturesque island gathering begin to escape their usual repression. There's even a literal explosion!
Let's start with the good. Shipstead's prose is graceful and insightful, neither spare nor flowery but confident and perceptive. Quality writing can make up for a lot of ills, and Shipstead's is damn good. The characters she creates feel real, and Livia and Dominique are sympathetic and interesting...especially Livia, whose raw heartbreak reminded me of my own tumultuous collegiate relationship. But where the book was held back from greatness or even real re-readability was its focus on Winn, by far the least compelling character in the book. Like the others, he's drawn with psychological verisimilitude: everything she reveals about why he is the way he is makes sense. But that doesn't change the fact that the way he is is unpleasant and off-putting, and I didn't enjoy reading about him. Since his storyline makes up about 40-50% of the book, that was a real problem. I'm not necessarily opposed to unlikable characters, but I want them to be complicated and interesting. Winn is just a pompous social-climbing blowhard going through a midlife crisis. There's nothing special there. For people who enjoy books about rich people behaving badly, you'll probably like this book. And for the rest of us, there's still a lot of good here. But for me, it mostly made me more interested in reading Shipstead's other work.