For a book that has this much hype I expected it to have a lot more impact upon completion. Perhaps I just didn’t understand it and the impact’s subtlety was lost on me. I will say re-reading the last line again increased the impact, but I honestly thought the denouement would be much more dramatic and or conclusive rather than sort of wishy-washy-ing its way to a finale.
Don’t get me wrong, this was not a bad book, it was incredibly well written and the number of lines that made me laugh out loud or that I had to re-read because of how beautiful written they were far outnumbered the issues I had with the book. What got me though is how little action there was in the book. It felt almost like a set of actions stuck on repeat. and that just didn’t do it for me. Thankfully the writing was so great that it pushed the story forward, but I’m still not sure about most of the hype for the book.
I downloaded a digital copy of this book from my library after hearing reviews and an author reading on three different podcasts over a period of two weeks. If so many people were talking about it I figured I should at least look into it. I listened to a reading from the author on one of those podcasts and the line that struck me as hilarious, even when I read the actual line was
“‘Dryden,’ Biddy said, ‘you look awfully dressed up for this time of day.’ The boy released a sigh of weary sophistication. He fluttered his blue-dusted eyelids and spread his fingers against his chest. ‘Oh, this? This is nothing. The good stuff’s in the safe.'” (22)
And this brief caption is a great glimpse into Shipstead’s writing. Having just finished talking about how feminine and stereotypically girly one of the protagonist’s daughters is she says something along the lines of leaving the little girl with her male cousin (Dryden) and hoping that it’ll dirty up her knees and the above line is what follows. There are many other instances of greatness like this throughout the novel which is why I’m not disappointed having read it, but I still felt like the novel didn’t really move or accomplish much.
If I had to drop it into a literary world, with readers of this blog knowing I read very eclectic books, I would probably drop it in with Mrs. Dalloway and A SIngle Man. And it warrants this both on story and writing. Shipstead’s ability to write is undeniable and her ability to write characters that make you think and that evolve is brilliant. And in the same strain, if you read this story at a time when you shouldn’t I could see this being an incredible struggle to enjoy and even to finish similar to the other two stories.
Recommendation: This is a very strange book in that I have no idea whether to recommend it. There were definitely parts that should be read and the story was interesting enough, but I don’t know if I just want to recommend it because of all the surrounding hype or because I actually enjoyed it. I would say take a chance if you get the opportunity to read it (it’s relatively short at just under 300 pages) but don’t kill yourself trying to find a copy.
Opening Line: “By Sunday the wedding would be over, and for that Winn Van Meter was grateful.”
Closing Line: “When her revolution was complete and they were separated by the length of their arms, joined only by their fingertips, he let go, releasing her into a life of her own making.” (Whited out.)
Additional Quotes from Seating Arrangements
“She had seen too many movies; she did not understand that love was a choice, entered and exited by free will and with careful consideration, not a random thunderbolt sent from above.” (29)
“Let them cultivate their moral superiority the way some people grew enormous, prizewinning pumpkins or watermelons that were, when you came down to it, really just freaks. (30)
“Shabbiness of necessity was easily disguised as modesty and thrift.” (42)
“But Winn saw the consequences of Livia’s mistake everywhere, as though her womb were the source of all disorder in the universe.” (64)
“Dominique had almost forgotten how these families worked, how they were set up to accommodate feigned ignorance, unspoken resentment, and repressed passion the way their houses had back stairways and rooms tucked away behind the kitchen for the feudal ghosts of their ancestors’ servants.” (74)
“Youth is the best excuse you’ll ever have…” (83)
“Members of wedding parties, Dominique thought, were almost contractually obligated to sneak off to kiss and grope one another. The union of groomsman and bridesmaid was a symbolic consummation, a rain dance, a pagan rite fueled by proximity to love and optimism and free booze.” (182)
“He had almost everything he could think to want, and yet still ambivalence bleached his world to an anemic pallor.” (236)
“The knowledge that he was afraid came in a burst of intuition. He was afraid of the ocean, of the darkness below their feet, of drowning. It had never occurred to Livia that he could drown. It was terrible to know her parents were going to die but worse to know they were afraid to die.” (275)
“Tell me never, Winn. I don’t want to move to the village of the truth tellers. I don’t want to know about tonight. I don’t want to know about the past. Nothing. This has never been something I wanted to know about. Like I said, I’m a realist.” (290)