Weddings and family drama often go hand in hand and in Seating Arrangements (Blue Door, April), the van Meter clan are on fine destructive form. Maggie Shipstead's début centres on Winn van Meter, a wealthy, old-school, north-eastern patriarch whose eldest (and pregnant) daughter Daphne is getting married. The novel follows the fortunes of the "Gatsby-esque" family, and their equally well-established guests, as their privileged lives slowly start to implode in the days leading up to the nuptials.
Born and raised on the other side of the country—in Mission Viejo, California—Shipstead explains that she hadn't really "encountered the Eastern establishment until I went to [Harvard University], where I met people who came from families like the van Meters. Being in California until I was 18, I hadn't really given class any thought. In California it is really just about money, but in the east, although there is an economic element to it, it is also about your name, the establishment and the culture."
These geographical nuances all helped Shipstead to create a cast of odd, but endearing, characters: "The thing about these truly old American families is that some of them are actually out of money, so they come up with these strategies of how to maintain status, and keep out any upstarts, which I found fascinating.
"So there are little things Winn does to make sure things are just so, even hanging down a tennis ball in the garage to show exactly where to park the car. I thought it would be interesting to see what happens when things then don't go right, and how people that have no back-up plan for how to negotiate life then cope."
Daphne's wedding is being held at the family's holiday home on the fictional island of Wakeke, which Shipstead based on Nantucket (an upmarket holiday island in Massachusetts) where she lived for eight months while writing the book.
"I'm not naturally disciplined, so being in a place where I knew literally no-one, and where there really was nothing to do, was really helpful for my work ethic. I went five weeks without a face-to-face conversation—beyond buying groceries at one point—I might have also become a bit insane."
HarperCollins imprint Blue Door won a "fiercely-fought" auction for Seating Arrangements, and sees it as strong contender for various prizes, including the Orange Prize. Rights have been sold in five territories to date, with Blue Door publisher Patrick Janson-Smith noting that "it has been a long time since I have been so completely captivated by a novel".
Filled with beautifully written and touching prose, it also has many very funny moments: pernickety Winn is obsessed with which gentleman's golf clubs he is, and is not, invited to join, much to the chagrin of his youngest daughter Livia; who in turn is living out her own slightly ridiculous romantic melodrama, much to the disapproval of her stuffy father.
A comedic touch was important to Shipstead, who says she took inspiration from writers she admires like "John Cheever, John Updike and Michael Chabon, all of whom write so well about that Eastern-American culture. Stylistically I looked to them, because they manage to put quite a bit of humour into their work. Even though their writing is really beautiful, I also think it's entertaining; that's important to me," she laughs, "as I didn't want it to be boring."
In Seating Arrangements, while planning the seating arrangements for Daphne's wedding, Winn's calm and collected wife Biddy is momentarily exasperated by the complex "web" connecting all of the guests. The novel started out as a short story, told solely from Winn's perspective—it was actually the first piece Shipstead wrote when she started her Master of Fine Arts at the Iowa Writer's Workshop aged 23. The tale was then expanded to novel length, with the inclusion of multiple narratives. Moving deftly from different generations and genders, Shipstead in turn manages to explore the same tangled web that entraps her characters, a process she enjoyed.
"I think that as a female writer, if you want to be taken as a serious literary author you do have to be able to write from a man's point of view... but I am not sure that the same is true for male writers. I think with my writing I can always try and think harder or try and be more truthful, to filter out ego and the need to make a point, and that helps me to get inside characters that are quite different from each other."
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