The Vacationers by Emma Straub
Published by Riverhead Books
Publication date: May 29, 2014
Genres: Contemporary, Fiction
The second novel can be a stressful time for any novelist but more so if their first hit it big, as did Emma Straub’s Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures. How marvelous then when the second novel travels (literally) in a completely different direction but still delivers on-point prose and an engaging story. I’m talking about The Vacationers, Straub’s contemporary look at the Post family, as they pack up and head to Mallorca for two weeks in the summer. Franny is a food writer and until recently Jim was the editor of an upscale men’s magazine. Their son, Bobby, is a Miami realtor, living the high life with his older girlfriend, Carmen, a personal trainer. Sylvia is the youngest, a high school senior anxious to get away and create a new persona in college. To round out the guest list Franny has included one of her dearest friends, Charles, and his husband, Lawrence.
For Franny and Jim this trip is about whether their thirty-five year marriage can survive Jim’s foray into the world of infidelity with a young and ambitious intern (also what cost him his job). Bobby is approaching thirty and life in real estate has not worked out as he hoped nor does he feel any desire to take his relationship with Carmen to the next level. Sylvia only knows that that the person she was in high school is not who she wants to be in college and this vacation, and her Spanish lessons with a gorgeous college student, are going to remake her identity. Charles and Lawrence are at a critical point in trying to adopt a child but have not told anyone about it yet. Additionally, the trip is fraught for Lawrence, who feels the outsider as Charles and Franny revert to their pre-spouses relationship in all its co-dependency. As he maintains all the etiquette of being a good houseguest he mentally relieves himself with an inner dialogue about Bobby Post and his Miami ways
Lawrence tried to imagine having a baby and then watching the baby grow into someone who used tanning oil. It wasn’t as bad as smoking crack, but it did seem to signify major differences in ideology.
This juxtaposition of surface manners being observed but reality roiling and churning directly beneath could lead The Vacationers into territory of either fluff and camp or hyper-intensity. Instead, with an innate intelligence and kindness Straub represents all stages of life and manages to give each the solemnity and mirth they deserve. There is no feeling of hitch or waver and as each character negotiates their way through their situation I was able to empathize with them. It’s not easy to offer up penetrating insight into the foibles and indignities of life, whether it is a teenage girl playing her drunken make-out sessions at a party on an endless loop in her head (as they are played out online for all eternity) or the emotional burden of being forcibly retired at an age when your relevance is still viable. And yet, Straub manages to not just see inside characters like Sylvia and Jim, she understands them and in doing so, lets us do the same—with the shame, pique, humor and frustration their lives invoke. The Vacationers: witty, tender, and smart is one of those books that is easy to love.