On “The Vacationers” by Emma Straub

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Courtesy of goodreads.com

In The Vacationers, Emma Straub cuts her teeth on the multi-perspective familial narrative for which she has become well-known. Her 2016 novel, Modern Lovers, shows the ultimate culmination and perfection of the skills she developed in The Vacationers; both stories shift among a group of family members or friends in a small time frame as they try to cope with uncovered secrets and maturation.

Like Modern Lovers, The Vacationers is a perfect little nugget of a novel, perfect for beach reading or a lazy Sunday. While it does not come together like a fine-tuned machine as the former novel does, it has a delectable lightness to it. To put that in perspective, imagine Emma Straub on one side of a spectrum with Jonathan Franzen on the other.

The Vacationers explores the slight nuances of a family whose individual members grapple–often comically–to come to terms with who they are and what they’ve done. Franny and Jim Post have been married for thirty-five years. They’ve had their ups and downs, but the marriage is seriously threatened when Jim is laid off from his job as an editor at a men’s magazine when it comes to light that he had an affair with a 23-year-old editorial assistant.

Franny’s solution is a two-week-long vacation to Mallorca where she will decide whether or not to stay in the marriage. Meanwhile, her children–Bobby and Sylvia–will join them, along with Franny’s best friend Charles, his husband Lawrence, and Bobby’s girlfriend Carmen.

Of course, two weeks in Mallorca turns into a period of self-reflection for everyone on the trip. Franny wraps herself up in the country’s culture and cuisine; Jim almost exclusively contemplates his infidelity and relationship with Franny; Bobby must figure out how to tell his parents about his financial difficulty and figure out his relationship with Carmen; Sylvia is dead set on losing her virginity to Joan (Jo-Ahn), her Spanish tutor during the trip; and Charles and Lawrence have to navigate the uncertainty in their relationship when it comes to adopting a baby.

Since each character is grappling with some life-changing decision, or learning how to grow up, or just developing as a human being in general, they all have more than a few irksome flaws. Quite honestly, Carmen was the only character I respected through and through.

The other characters would have you think she’s a simple-minded, exercise crazed drone. But she’s actually a damn hard worker. I thought that the Posts coddled Bobby way too much, making him helpless and dependent–basically a child in a man’s body. Maybe it’s the Latina in me that sympathizes with Carmen. The damn white folk haven’t had to do a hard day’s work in their lives.

Alas, she got the hell out of there when she stopped taking shit from Bobby. She helped him more than anyone else in his family could ever appreciate, and I hated that they gave her so much shit for what they assumed was her superficial nature. Newsflash to them: she was just trying to avoid their bullshit.

ANYWAY, I’m getting off my soap box now.

Straub’s writing is delicate, yet to the point. She says what she means directly, and I found that I loved the structure of her sentences–like strong skipping stones. There was, however, more strength in the beginning of the novel where each character is introduced. Straub is a master of characterization, much like the tradition of writers like Jane Austen and Henry James.

I can concede that it was a strong start for a writer really hitting her stride and finding the narrative form that works best for her. Though the characters can be irksome, each of them has a hook that keeps the reader going; they are, after all, a reflection of the white, middle-class, pre-gentrification New York family.

I trust Straub to show me these perspectives because she has a great knack for it. I expect she’ll carry this style she’s perfected into her future books. She’ll have a devoted reader in me.

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