Review: The Vacationers

Novel by Emma Straub
Review by Kristin D. Urban-Watson
Issue No. 9 – September 2015

Spain in the summer means good food, beautiful scenery and vast opportunities of leisure for a vacationing American family. Even though Emma Straub’s writing has appeared in many journals and publications, including Slate, the Paris Review Daily and “American Short Fiction,” she gained widest acclaim with her second novel, which took place in the Golden Age of Hollywood, Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures. The Vacationers, Straub’s latest, debuted just a few months ago in late May, just as summer vacation season kicked off.

And this is certainly a summer read. Franny, the type-A matriarch of the Post family, had been happily anticipating the trip to Mallorca months in advance. This vacation was meant to serve as a thirty-fifth wedding anniversary for Franny and her husband, Jim, as well as a last hurrah for their daughter before she starts her freshman year at Brown. But, as it not so surprisingly turns out, all is not perfect.

In fact, it is a crowded vacation, full of bickering, high-emotions, secrets, and judgment. The book is littered with characters we see a dozen times or more, yet none of them quite reach that necessary level of authenticity in order to be relatable. There’s the cheating husband, the fussy wife and mother, the gay best friend and his baby-crazy husband, the misunderstood teenager and the mismatched couple, provided by Franny’s son and his toned girlfriend.

All of these exaggerated and colorful characters are squashed into a picturesque house set into a hilltop in Mallorca, and owned by a friend of a friend. While Straub sets up clichéd characters within a commonplace setting, she still manages to make it a clever, and entertaining read. Within the world of the vacation, each character shares a sometimes dysfunctional, but almost always complicated relationship with the group. There are numerous microscopic stories within The Vacationers. Watching them play out is enjoyable, even if you can guess what will happen, much like a sitcom.

Sylvia, the angsty teenager, is determined to start fresh post-high school, where she was nobody, and where nobody screwed her. She even makes a to-do list, with number four sticking out: “lose virginity.” Lo and behold, the Spanish tutor that her mother has employed is a slice of sexy Mallorcan heaven, way beyond Sylvia’s reach. But is he, really?

Bobby Post, the eldest child, and the New York-to-Florida transplant, has himself an older girlfriend who hardly eats, and who does hundreds of squats a day — in contrast to Bobby’s plump and food loving mother. Forced smiles and awkward conversations ensue, and the reader can sit back and watch it all unfold.

Charles (Franny’s gay BFF) and his husband Lawrence are madly in love, but Lawrence wants a baby, and Charles has a small secret of his own. Even though they are in domestic bliss, is it enough for them?

As these little dramas unravel, there is one story that takes the foreground: will Franny forgive her handsome, recently ‘retired’ husband for cheating on her? In a predictable book, the answer isn’t too difficult to come by. But even so, Straub perfectly captures a family under strain, and all of their personal grievances. She also successfully captures the familiar sensation of the overloaded vacationer — too much time with family, too little space. The greatest fault with this book is the easy guesswork, and the lack of connection that the reader will feel with many of the characters. But it is a amusing page-turner, one that readers might well gobble up.

The Vacationers
Emma Straub
Riverhead Books
320 pages, $11.40

Kristin D. Urban-Watson is a writer, art teacher, book reviewer, and yoga enthusiast. She enjoys good books, nature walks, and spending time with her black lab.

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