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Book Review of “The Vacationers” by Emma Straub

Lisa Deane
a review of:

The Vacationers
By Emma Straub
Riverhead Books
ISBN 978-159463157

Gistnopsis:

Middle-aged married couple Franny and Jim, 28-year-old Bobby, and 18-year-old Sylvia, along with Franny’s best friend, Charles, his husband, Lawrence, and Bobby’s unwelcome over-40 girlfriend, Carmen—vacation in Majorca for two weeks. Despite their enviable display of plenty during an economic recession, the leisurely literary fiction plot is driven by vividly realistic relationship tensions. Like any group, not everyone is looking forward to spending time together: Sylvia wrestles with being a teen in the 21st century, Jim and Franny arrive at their thirty-fifth anniversary in anguish, Charles and Lawrence battle insecurity while soothing baby fever, and Bobby and Carmen discover the perils of lukewarm “love.”

Impressions:

This novel lifted my mood on an emotionally gloomy weekend and elicited multiple, genuine bouts of laughter within the first 100 pages. I came across The Vacationers on a top ten list of books to read this summer, so naturally I snubbed it. But when I took a spontaneous family weekend getaway myself, I downloaded a Kindle sample on a whim and couldn’t stop reading—which is exactly how it should be. On my solo night, I read 40% in one go, easily, on a lounge chair by the beach in Bequia. I braved chikungunya, potential burglars lurking in the shadows, and pirates sailing through Friendship Bay on powerboats to stay up and glide through the pages in true vacation form.

Straub’s prose is funny, and feels current without being too current. In other words, it’s not my generation current: rife with curse words, drug use, and indiscriminate sex, like a favourite HBO or Showtime series. Instead, there are quaint scenes I sometimes feel alone in relating to, like an eighteen-year-old virgin who has tarnished her reputation by kissing too many boys. Even Sylvia’s sex scene with Majorcan native, Joan (pronounced Jo-ahhn), is demure, but still sexy, causing just as much of a physical reaction as the ones I’m used to reading, which go more like, Pussy this, fuck that, harder here. Their rendezvous on the beach isn’t love—which places it outside the bounds of ideal sexual/emotional conservatism—but it is lovemaking, the pace and aura falling in tandem with gentle civilization as well as the gait of the novel as an introspective on daily-life intimacy. The condom sort of ruined things for me (don’t they always?!) but I suppose Straub wants to display the pleasant side of impulsivity and risk-taking without seeming to encourage unplanned pregnancy and the unnecessary spread of disease. Still, engulfed in the moment, I found it hard to imagine that Jo-ahhn would have anything but perfect, gentlemanly sperm.

By page 293, we’ve come full circle from catching a cab in front of the Posts’ Upper West Side home to taxiing down a Madrid runway. Ultimately, The Vacationers succeeds in portraying a family struggling with the universal human challenge: relationships. There are countless novels that try to accomplish the same thing, but they read stiff, as if they were written by a person with a laptop and a dictionary, but no real passion for the visceral nature of literary language. I started a couple hopefully, but, although the content was interesting—betrayed wife may murder husband, artist’s mistress dumps him to get married and he pines for her while tolerating his frigid French wife and toddler daughter—each word felt contrived, leaving me uncomfortably aware that I was reading. With The Vacationers, you’re a fly on the characters’ internal walls, and all the intangible aspects, the relationship dynamics, the good bits, are experienced instead of retold. Sadly, in the Kindle version there were two jarring typographical errors—one early on with faulty subject-verb agreement, and the other a misplaced letter in the middle of a word. Novels this enjoyable deserve the best editing.

Include in a 1000-book lifetime limit?:

Yes.


 

Lisa Deane earned a well-decorated honours BA in English Literature from the University of Toronto, St. George, 2011. She is a freelance writer who reads relentlessly and has an affection for fiction.

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