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2 novels about dysfunctional families on vacation

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2. 'Seating Arrangements'

What's more fraught with emotional peril than a family vacation? How about a destination wedding?

Winn and Biddy Van Meter's oldest daughter, Daphne, is getting married, and the big event is taking every ounce of her and her mother's attention … and her father's patience.

“His wedding had been a wedding, not a family reunion and missile launch and state dinner all rolled into one,” he thinks bemusedly in Maggie Shipstead's debut novel, “Seating Arrangements.”

Daphne, placidly pregnant, is getting married from the family's summer house, Proper Dews, on an unnamed island off the coast of Cape Cod. “[T]he weekend, now surveyed from its near edge, felt daunting, not a straightforward exercise in familial peacekeeping and obligatory cheer but a treacherous puzzle, full of opportunities for the wrong thing to be said or done.”

Winn is, of course, correct in his assessment. And, attired in salmon-colored slacks, the father of the bride will be the one who will seize the most opportunities to do and say the very worst possible things in Shipstead's social-climbing comedy of manners.

Winn, who had applied for membership at the island golf club, still hasn't heard back and has become obsessed by the snub. Meanwhile, his younger daughter, Livia, is going through a heartbreak that isn't allowed to interfere with her sister's big day or her father's social aspirations. Her mother, Biddy, has become used to going unnoticed as she keeps the household in order, while her sister, Celeste, careens from marriage to marriage, martini in hand.

Then there are the bridesmaids: ditzy Piper; Egyptian Dominique, who provides the voice of reason in this wedding farce; and sultry Agatha – “sex appeal was something she rained down on the world indiscriminately, like a leaflet campaign.”

Winn is determined to plow his way into the narrow world his daughter's new in-laws inhabit effortlessly: “the Ivy League, the Junior League, The Social Register, Emily Post, Lilly Pulitzer, the Daughters of the American Revolution, Windsor knots, cummerbunds, needlepointed tissue box covers, L.L. Bean, Memorial Dy. Labor Day, waterfowl-based décor.”

Since the most notable accomplishment appears to be the ability for grown men to wear pants with whales embroidered on them with a straight face, one could wonder at all the effort and emotional upheaval expended on the enterprise. Or, if you're Winn, you could blame the father of your daughter's ex-boyfriend and start stalking him, in between bouts of lusting after one of the bridesmaids … in your daughter's wedding party.

“These people … seemed intent on dividing their community into smaller and smaller factions, halves of halves, always approaching but never reaching some axis of perfect exclusivity,” Dominique, observes.

Those who cry at weddings might want to seek elsewhere for a tale of true love. “Seating Arrangements” is more for those who regard matrimony as a blood sport.

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