Yesterday marked the release of Emma Straub’s third book, The Vacationers. As a mere mortal, I haven’t yet read it. But I recently read her first two books, and was won over by their warmth and insightful realism.
Initially, I was a bit skeptical of Straub’s story collection, Other People We Married (2011). Straub studied with one of my favorite authors, Lorrie Moore, and the similarities between their short stories seemed almost too strong at first. The first-person narrators of pieces like “Some People Must Really Fall in Love,” in which a university lecturer has a crush on a student, and “A Map of Modern Palm Springs,” in which a twenty-something goes on a fraught vacation with an insensitive older sister, are closely related to the voices in Moore’s own debut collection, Self-Help (1985). This could have added up to too much of a good thing, had Straub’s stories not had a momentum of their own. But she pulled me in with her depictions of smart women who are underdogs in one way or another.
By the time I got to “Abraham’s Enchanted Forest,” I was hooked. Set in a bit of woods rigged up as a roadside attraction, the piece focuses on the teenage daughter of an eccentric couple who seem to lead a charmed alternative existence. The keenly observant Greta spends summers working alongside her parents, Abraham and Judy, while wearing a pair of fairy wings. She frequently ponders her parents’ wending paths to the present—a quintessentially 1970s story involving candlemaking, an old school bus, and a roadtrip. Straub portrays Greta’s ponderings through the third person: “It was almost too much too bear, the thousands of choices that led up to Greta’s existence. It all just seemed so unlikely.” Contemplating the funky theme park of her parents’ creation—a Ferris wheel; a gardening-shed-turned-Hall-of-Mirrors; a restaurant famous for apple pie—Greta thinks, “If the Enchanted Forest were in a movie, they’d always be playing Bob Dylan or Van Morrison or maybe even Leonard Cohen in the background.” Poised on the precipice of adulthood, Greta anticipates spreading her (fairy) wings just as she begins to see her family in a new light. “Abraham’s Enchanted Forest” is an apt depiction of the kinds of quirky childhoods those of us born to flower children tend to have.
After finishing the book, I found myself craving further immersion in Straub’s world. Thisbe Nissen writes that “Emma Straub’s stories mean that there are fewer lonely people in the world; they are the best kind of company.” I certainly felt the absence of her characters and stories after finishing the book, and I can say that her next book had the same effect.
Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures (2012) is a moving portrayal of a small-town Wisconsin girl’s coming of age and rise to stardom during Hollywood’s golden age, but the real story is in her unraveling and remaking. Laura Lamont—whose pre-movie star name is Elsa Emerson—starts life in a world where women hitch their fates to men. Yet in some way Elsa—whose family runs the local theater—authors her own future. When she meets her first husband, Gordon, Elsa has “the feeling that Gordon-from-Florida had no idea where he was, and couldn’t find it on a map even with a couple of flashing arrows.” But Elsa can already see her own route: “she knew from the moment that Gordon-from-Florida walked into the Cherry County Playhouse that she would walk out with him at the end of the summer, walk all the way to California if she had to.” As the novel unfolds, Elsa/Laura’s fortunes turn from mediocre to good to out-of-this-world and back again, but she eventually becomes a more autonomous person while remaining deeply connected to others.
Though the two books have very different feels—Laura Lamont is a sumptuous Hollywood story, while Other People We Married is wry and contemporary—I certainly saw parallels between the two. Throughout, characters navigate relationships, intuit futures, and experience revelatory shifts in their own lives. In both books, women sense possible futures in the faces of men they meet. As Greta of “Abraham’s Enchanted Forest” believes, “there were people who were just meant to get you somewhere, like Judy’s old boyfriend the candlemaker. They weren’t supposed to stick around.” But, she also comes to realize, some people are meant to stay. And even those who pass through our lives leave their marks, whether in the form of objects left behind, relationships not-quite-resolved, or occupations taken up and abandoned. Straub has a knack for leaving off just as a new turn of events waits around the corner, allowing us to envision for ourselves the next shift or culmination for which a character is headed.