The Vacationers

the vacationersThe Short Version: The Posts are headed to Mallorca for two weeks – what could be wrong with the world?  Except Jim and Franny’s marriage is on the rocks, Sylvia just graduated from high school, Bobby’s dating a bodybuilder who’s more than a decade older than him, and the family’s best friend Charles & Lawrence are trying to adopt a baby.  So, perfect timing for a family vacation, right?

The Review: Summertime means not just vacations – it means family vacations.  Sure, plenty of people take vacations (family or otherwise) at other times of year, but summer is really what it’s all about.  And with family vacations come all of the various tensions of, well, being a member of a family.  They don’t just go away because you’re in an exotic locale.  I remember being SO MAD at my parents when my ‘girlfriend’ broke up with me 2/3 of the way through the family vacation out West – despite being on my mom’s cousin’s ranch in the middle of a forest in Colorado, literally one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been.
But also, I remember every single trip fondly for one reason or another.  It’s been many years since we had a true family vacation, one that lasted a week or more, and so I dove into Emma Straub’s latest – a deceptively simple sort of novel, from synopsis to last word – with a desire to have that sort of a trip evoked.  And wouldn’t you know it, she nailed it.  I mean, I just spent a half hour procrastinating on this review looking at beach rentals in the Outer Banks for next summer (hint hint, mom and dad, because I know you’re reading this).

Anyway, I digress.  The Post Family are pretty ‘average’ – two kids, midlife crises, etc.  I can see a universe where people might scoff at this book and hashtag about its privilege or something but you can’t come into this book with those sort of thoughts or concerns, or you’re going to miss the point.  Yes, the Posts are moderately well-off – comfortably upper-middle-class as far as New Yorkers go and probably lower-upper-class as far as most other places go.  But that doesn’t invalidate their problems or their tribulations, you know?  And I found that, very quickly, I genuinely cared about these people.  I wanted to know why Jim had the affair, I wanted to know what was up with Bobby and his cougar girlfriend, I wanted to know if Charles and Lawrence would get the baby – I wanted Sylvia to bed that cute Spanish tutor!  And I think that’s really Straub’s triumph here: she got me invested, very quickly, in each of these people as an individual.

Her prose swings from perspective to perspective in the space of paragraphs, sometimes sentences, so it does require you to pay a modicum of attention – not to make sure you aren’t confused, but rather to make sure you haven’t missed anything.  It’d be easy enough, I don’t doubt, to be reading quickly and miss something – not a plot point, nothing that big, but maybe some piece of character development that would enrich the whole thing.  There’s something to be said for taking the time to fill in the background for a reader who is paying attention.  My favorite example is probably from when Charles, Lawrence, and Sylvia go to visit an art gallery (and the artist’s preserved studio) and there’s a line about how Charles’ studio is immaculate except for the floor, which has years worth of accumulation of accidental spots.  It was a single sentence but it gave me more sense of who Charles was and I liked that.  It was a fancy little trick, one I don’t see that often in this sort of writing.

And by “this sort of writing”, I do in fact mean beach reads.  I’m not trying to be derogatory to the ‘genre’ or to this book – but this is very much a highbrow beach read.  I mean, hello, I keep thinking about going to the beach myself right now as I write this review and I spent the whole time I was finishing it in Central Park this weekend wishing I was finishing it at the beach instead.  But what could be better than a highbrow beach read?  We spend a little time with this family, with all of their quirks, and at the end of the two weeks / 300 pages, we head back home again.  A little tired, maybe, and certainly ready to get on to the next thing – but a little relaxed, too.  As the family coalesced towards the end of the novel – not around any particular thing, although there were plenty of things to coalesce around – I found myself thinking of my family.  And in the warm summer sun, I can’t think of many better thoughts.

Oh and that scene with Sylvia and Joan (dude’s name, pronounced “Jo-aaaaan”)?  Super hot.  Super cheesy.  Super great.  I mean, let’s all just be honest about it.  Okay thanks.

Rating: 4 out of 5.  Although there are a few moments that feel like a conscious moment to spur the next round of conflict or the next step in a particular relationship’s progression, I didn’t mind so much when the author’s hand was noticeable.  I was enjoying myself too much.  I wanted Franny and Jim to sort it out, I was rooting for Sylvia to start over in college (lord knows I know what it’s like to want that), I was hoping Bobby would grow up a little.  These people felt, in the space of a short couple of pages, like friends of my family for years – and I was happy to spend ‘two weeks’ with them.  And should the inevitable film adaptation come around, I’ll spend another 90 minutes with them then, too – quite happily.

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