- Emma Straub
- Riverhead Books
- 292 pp.
- Reviewed by Kara Oakleaf
- August 18, 2014
The Post family chooses the perfect summer escape — the island of Mallorca — in this humorous exploration into people’s vulnerabilities and relationships.
Emma Straub’s novel, The Vacationers, is definitely what you’d call a “summer read.” The swimming-pool-blue cover, with its floating figures in bright red bathing suits, looks right at home on the edge of a beach towel. Like many summer books, it’s a quick read and its tone is often light and humorous and like many readers, its characters are looking for a brief escape into another world.
What separates The Vacationers is just how well Straub knows her characters. In the novel, we spend 14 days with the Post family, but Straub, in Other People We Married, her first collection of short stories, has already written about a younger Franny Post, her best friend, Charles, her husband, Jim, and their son, Bobby. It’s not necessary to have read these stories to enjoy The Vacationers, but Straub has spent quite a lot of time with the Posts, and it shows. Her characters are distinct but recognizable in ways that remind readers of their own families, friends, and selves.
As the family sets off for the Balearic island of Mallorca, we meet Franny and Jim; their 18-year-old daughter, Sylvia; a grown-up Bobby, now 28; and his even more grown-up girlfriend, Carmen, a 40-year-old personal trainer the Posts are none too happy to see their son still dating. Joining them are Charles and his husband, Lawrence, who are in the process of adopting and anxiously waiting for that phone call. All of these relationships are on shaky ground, and none know what kind of life will be waiting for them when they return.
Though they are meant to be celebrating their thirty-fifth anniversary, Franny and Jim are unsure if their marriage will survive the trip. Jim’s recent affair with an intern at work has ended his career, and he finds himself lost, “a cool sixty with no Monday mornings ahead.” He’s hoping to save his marriage, but Franny is unsure if she can forgive him and is considering what life might be like as a 58-year-old divorcée.
It’s hard to see how they will reconcile — Franny can hardly be in the same room as Jim. But a few scenes reveal the better parts of their marriage and their struggle to overcome the distance now between them. At dinner one night, Jim tries to talk with Franny, and she finds herself laughing at his jokes but then quickly backs off: “‘Stop,’ she said. ‘I’m not ready to laugh with you.’...Jim raised his hands in surrender, and they both turned back to the far end of the table.” In just a few minutes, we see the kind of relationship they used to have, their tentative attempts to become a couple again, and the space they still need to get there.
Sylvia is equally happy to have escaped her high school friends and despondent about spending two weeks in a house with her parents and their marital problems. Straub nails the teenage sensibility: Sylvia is eager to leave for college but still needs the security of a family she is terrified is coming apart. One scene shows Sylvia alone in the middle of the night, coming down the stairs to make sure her father isn’t sleeping on the couch: “Of course, he wasn’t there…Sylvia was relieved, and embarrassed that she’d even wanted to check. When she was a little girl, and had a nightmare, her father had always been the first one on the scene, opening closet doors and poking his head under the bed. That’s all she was doing — making sure the monsters were pretend.” The Vacationers contains many powerful images like this, which perfectly capture the characters’ vulnerability.
The humor in The Vacationers is another highlight. At one point, watching his teenage daughter, Jim captures the kind of manic energy he sees in her: “being eighteen was like being made of rubber and cocaine.” Later, Sylvia, disgusted with a club Bobby has taken her to, calls it a “massive, thumping Romper Room for adults.” The novel is full of these funny lines, which are unexpected and a little weird but always completely accurate in their descriptions.
The book takes some missteps. Even though the shifting point of view works well for this story, there are occasional jumps from one character to another in the same paragraph or even the same sentence that seem jarring. And some of Straub’s metaphors lose their effect because of repetition. Sylvia says she “always thought of her brother as an older version of herself, a test batch of genetic material, but lately she wasn’t sure.” Then, a bit later, Sylvia repeats this idea: “She’d always thought siblings were pretty much the same people in differently shaped bodies, just shaken up slightly, so that the molecules rearranged themselves, but now she wasn’t sure.” It’s a beautiful sentence, but when you’re pretty sure you’ve already read it, the effect is dampened.
Though the characters are generally well developed, Straub’s initial description of Lawrence is a little stereotypical: After judging a stranger’s outfit at the airport, Lawrence wonders why sweatsuits hadn’t been outlawed a decade ago. It’s a stereotypical line for a gay man, and after spending more time with Lawrence, readers quickly realize it seems uncharacteristic of him.
By the end of the novel, Franny and Jim’s story also loses some of its complexity. Their conclusion seems to come a little too fast and a little too easy. To be fair, Straub does hint that the end of the book is not necessarily the end of their problems. Still, the way things are wrapped up feels a little too simple for the complexity we’ve seen in Franny and Jim’s relationship.
Overall, these issues don’t take away from the considerable strengths in this novel: the voice, the characters, the humor, and the setting. And in spite of everything, it’s easy to understand why Straub wants to bring her characters to some sort of resolution and to send them — and the readers — off with a little bit of hope. After all, this is summer vacation, and it’s not so bad to be in Mallorca with the Posts, isolated in a picturesque corner of the world that can only serve as the backdrop for a hopeful story.
Kara Oakleaf received her MFA in fiction from George Mason University. She currently works at George Mason and manages the annual Fall for the Book literary festival.