Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead

Wonderful books are coming at me from every direction, it seems. Once again I have the amazing librarians at the VPL to thank for putting Seating Arrangements where I would be sure to spy it and add it to my heap of books. I’m actually going to download this as well, the writing is that good. And I have it on hand so I can provide a few quotes to prove just how fun this book is.

When I wrote about Mrs. Queen Takes the Train, I noted a trend in literature coming from the UK. There is a similar yet distinct vein in American writing as well, of which I am equally fond. The best examples are, in my opinion, Richard Russo, Jonathan Franzen, John Irving and Curtis Sittenfeld.  Again, it’s the relatively common-sense expository style that I like. These writers however, are more explicit in their examinations of social mores than are the English.  (Both include details of food and clothing which I love.)

Seating Arrangements deals largely with social striving, the futility of endlessly climbing a ladder which has no end:

“These people, this pervasive clique, this Establishment to which Winn had attached himself and his family, seemed intent on dividing their community into smaller and smaller fractions, halves of halves, always approaching but never reaching some axis of perfect exclusivity.” p. 75

“Years had to pass before Dominique could see the strain they placed on themselves or, rather, what their grand goal was. They wanted to be aristocrats in a country that was not supposed to have an aristocracy, that was, in fact, founded partly as a protest against hereditary power. That was what Dominique could not understand: why devote so much energy to imitating a system that was supposed to be defunct? Any hereditary aristocracy was stupid, and Americans didn’t even have rules for theirs, not really. Lots of the kids Dominique knew at Deerfield came from families dedicated to perpetuating some moldy, half-understood code of conduct passed along by generations of impostors. But, she supposed, people who believe themselves to be well bred wouldn’t want to give up their invented castes because then they might be left with nothing, no one to appreciate their special clubs, their family trees, their tricky manners, their threadbare wealth.” p. 78

Dominique is a Coptic Christian Egyptian who attended private school and later Princeton with the protagonist’s daughters. She provides the outside voice who makes cool observations of the others. The protagonist, Winn, seems at first like a classic East Coast patrician. But as the novel progresses the fragile construct that Winn lives by is slowly eroded as the reader – and Winn himself – discovers just how tenuous his grip on his social status really is. You have to feel pity for Winn as he seems obsessed with a golf club which refuses to admit him. He keeps casting about for reasons and he descends into pitiable gestures, flailings at those he imagines are responsible. His shallow yearnings inspire contempt and pity, and his weak attraction to his daughter’s friend makes it even worse. Meanwhile one of his daughters is hugely pregnant and about to be married, and the other is suffering from rejection and an abortion. The first daughter has completely bought into the faux-aristocratic lifestyle; his second makes bitter observations about the uselessness of all the striving:

“The club, she thought, was an institution that existed for little purpose other than to select its members. Once you were in, then what?” p. 70

“People shuffled the order of love, marriage, and baby carriage all the time, but not people who had grown up under the contiguous roofs of Winn Van Meter, Deerfield, and Princeton.” p. 260

Livia also makes some amusing observations: while being prepped for her abortion, she notices, “an apparatus the size and shape of a small water cooler covered with a quilted, strawberry-printed sort of tea cozy. Was there some booth at a craft fair that sold cheerful, handmade accessories for abortionists?” p. 263

Winn’s concern for his status far outweighs his concern for his daughters and his wife and he seems completely oblivious to the undercurrents and tensions that surround him as guests and family gather for his daughter’s wedding, whilst he simultaneously becomes more and more hysterical about the perceived snub of the golf club. He gives a disastrous toast in which he compares marriage to death: “What else is there to do? You can’t date forever. We don’t want to be alone. We marry, and we live out our lives. Then…well, marriage, even a happy marriage like my own and like I’m sure yours will be, Daphne, is a precursor to death. If you never leave your partner and you’re faithful, marriage has the same kind of finality. there is nothing else.” Awesome. Immediately afterward his new son-in-law explains to the gathering that Winn was knocked off his bicycle earlier and is under the influence of painkillers. And Winn, in the grip of despair at being barred from the holiest of holies, is just getting started. I’m going to stop here before I give it all away.

I find it interesting, the desire – and I don’t think it’s exclusive to Americans – for a kind of caste system in which one is at the peak or at least in sight of the peak. I think it’s significant that the two biggest commercial vendors of this fictional aristocratic image are both immigrants or children of immigrants – Ralph Lauren, formerly Lifshitz, and Martha Stewart, formerly Kostyra. There have been enough wealthy Americans aping British aristocracy for them to be able to re-create, visually, a lifestyle that never really existed. (Jonathan Raban writes about the Ralph Lifshitz/Lauren phenomenon in his book Hunting Mr. Heartbreak.)

Dominique: “As a member of an unpopular minority in her home country, secular though she and her parents were, she thought she should be outraged by WASPy illusions of grandeur and birthright, their smugness, the nepotistic power they wielded. But the worst she could summon was a bleak, mild pity, and more often, she felt a bleak, mild amusement. Her sense was that the Van Meters had to throw more elbows than some to keep their status, and at times she caught herself feeling sorry for them.” p. 79

I suppose there are lots of people who need to feel better than other people, albeit for equally silly qualities or achievements. When I lived in England I kept meeting people who behaved in a very superior manner towards others, but when you talked to them to try to find out exactly how excellent they were and why, it would essentially boil down to the fact that they were born to a family that had pretensions to some kind of social loftiness. They would often have no great skills, or interesting work, or even a university degree. I would have settled for “idle philosopher” but most of them didn’t seem to think, even. They didn’t read, they didn’t engage in the world, yet they considered themselves a cut above everyone else. It all came down to being born. Talk about confusing luck with virtue. I always thought that was very sad – there must be immense depths of insecurity for someone to clutch onto this ephemeral idea of superiority. If you know anything at all about English history, or even if you’ve read Edward Rutherfurd’s London or similar books, you know that titles and aristocracy could be happened upon accidentally, or even bought. Charles II was an impoverished king who sold titles left and right to anybody who had the ready cash. Even in Downtown Abbey, Lord Grantham has married an American woman whose fortune has enabled him to remain Lord Grantham. The rest of the family condescends to Cora, but without her money – her American money – they wouldn’t have a silver pot to P in. In Australia, we discovered that if you want to make an Australian bristle, bring up convict ships. I guess the First Fleet, though it has a cachet of its own, is not exactly the same as the Mayflower. Even the Mayflower – in Bill Bryson’s book The Lost Continent he describes the passengers of the Mayflower as being woefully unequipped and too incompetent to survive life in the New World. There must be something to be proud of in there but I’m not sure what it is.

In my own family, people periodically mention the fact that my great-grandfather entertained the Prince of Wales when HRH came to Canada in the 1920s. I always think, So what? HRH’s train happened to stop in Lethbridge, Alberta, a community that consisted of maybe 20 Doukhobors and then Pete and Margaret Smith, who had come north to Canada leaving behind their Mormon roots in Utah so that they could have a drink in peace. The train had to stop somewhere and Lethbridge was convenient. I picture the royal equerry choosing activities for HRH and pondering: a tour of a Doukhobor farm, or a night with the area’s bon vivant? Tough choice! I don’t drink but even I would choose to hang out with Granddad Pete over touring a pig farm. Of course, I have actually toured a Doukhobor farm on a family visit so I know of which I speak – being a city kid, I found that the farm produced aromas that I found, um, strong, so I was holding my hand to my face. One of our Doukhobor hostesses, a lady in a starched apron and wire-rimmed glasses, frowned at me and flicked my hand away from my face, like I was going to offend the pigs. I retaliated by lifting my t-shirt over my nose and glaring at her over the collar.

So, “entertaining royalty”, though it sounds good, just means that Granddad could party and there was nobody else available who spoke English and not Russian. Dubious distinction at best! Why do we have such a weakness for our little pedigrees? What does it all actually mean? In the New World, not a whole lot, and that should really apply to the Old World as well. Remember the French Revolution? How long did it take for Napoleon to resurrect all that noble fawning? In Communist countries, party officials become puffed-up elites clad in Louis Vuitton bought with kickback money. Drug dealers use their ill-gotten loot to gain admittance for their children to private schools in attempts to achieve respectability, like the Corleones. Climbing, climbing, always climbing, trying to forget from whence we really came.

Anyway, enough about me. Seating Arrangements pokes fun at this phenomenon more eloquently than I can, it’s hilarious, and the writing is wonderful. And Ms. Shipstead was born in 1983! She’s so young but has such a grip on the language. Kudos to her. There were no mistakes in grammar or usage which was a a relief, although this is often the failing of editors and copyeditors. (In this week’s edition of Maclean’s magazine (Canadian news magazine) someone wrote, “a lower-wrung staffer” – italics mine. I winced when I read it.)

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