New England blue bloods suffer through three days of wedding festivities in Shipstead’s debut, a bleak comedy of manners—think a modern-day Edith Wharton on downers.
Winn Van Meter (Deerfield, Harvard), a banker apparently oblivious to the recession, and his stoic wife Biddy (ancestors on the Mayflower) are throwing a wedding for daughter Daphne (Deerfield, Princeton) on the Massachusetts island where they always summer. Winn certainly approves of Daphne’s fiancé, whales-on-his-belt preppy Greyson Duff, whom she met at Princeton and whose parents own the entire Maine island where they summer. He is less thrilled that Daphne is 8 months pregnant. To make matters worse, Daphne’s younger sister Livia (Deerfield, Harvard) was impregnated by her Harvard boyfriend, Teddy, around the same time. What sticks in Winn’s craw is not Livia’s pregnancy or the abortion after her Teddy dumped her, but rather the embarrassment she caused by announcing her pregnancy in a drunken rage one evening at the Ophidian, a Harvard club. Winn takes club membership very seriously. Even his dangerous attraction to Daphne’s bridesmaid Agatha (Deerfield) is less compelling than his desire to get into the Pequod Club where he’s been lingering on the waiting list; ironically, Teddy’s parents, whom Winn treated badly in his college days (the Vietnam era although Winn hardly noticed) have influence at the Pequod. Once Greyson’s family arrives, a game of sexual musical chairs begins. Winn plays around with Agatha in the laundry room. Pursued by Greyson’s self-proclaimed Buddhist brother Francis, Livia instead hooks up with his black sheep oldest brother Sterling. The next day Livia and Winn walk into the garage and catch Sterling in flagrante delicto with Agatha, whose predatory sexual appetite is never explained. More embarrassing if less sexual incidents follow. The one outsider, bridesmaid Dominique (Deerfield, U. of Mich., but Egyptian!!), observes their escapades with a jaundiced eye.
Despite Shipstead’s flair for language and scene setting, her characters are worse than cartoonishly unlikable—they are, with the exception of Dominique, yawn-provokingly uninteresting.