Emma Straub’s The Vacationers is as effervescent and breezy as its chlorine-blue cover implies—but it’s also much more. Set primarily in a vacation house in Mallorca, Spain, the novel weaves through the various perspectives and backstories of the Post family and friends. Though I floated effortlessly through most of the family intrigue, Straub reveals hidden depths as the novel concludes. As usual, her characters are warmly rendered, and relationships are complex and resonant. As with her last two titles, I felt a bit bereft when I closed the book, not wanting to give up the excellent company of the “vacationers” I’d come to know.
Straub’s characters face enough conflict to keep things interesting. Matriarch Franny Post (who previously appeared in Straub’s story collection, Other People We Married, along with Jim, Charles, and Bobby) is a short and feisty woman—at heart, still a practical, wide-eyed girl from Brooklyn. She sets out on the family vacation determined to make the most of it, but she also plans to decide what her next step will be in light of her husband Jim’s recent infidelity. As they prepare for take-off, Jim reflects on his recent slip-up and also fears that when his youngest child leaves for college, “the time they had all spent together would seem like a fantasy, someone else’s comfortably imperfect life.” “Comfortably imperfect” seems a fair description of the Post family and friends’ circumstances—and I mean that in a good way. Straub provides a frank estimation of the flaws of family life without ever abandoning a sense of optimism.
In her review of the book, Janet Maslin of The New York Times writes that “The male characters tend to be two-dimensional, but the story’s women are so well drawn that they seem instantly familiar.” To a certain extent, I agree. The female characters are fully developed, but Franny and Jim’s oldest offspring, 28-year-old Bobby, is the only character for whom I never felt true empathy. Seemingly a Post family aberration, he’s taken up a fitness and real estate-focused life in Miami, eschewing the intellectual New York life in which he was reared. The Post family quietly but obviously disapproves of his longterm girlfriend, Carmen, a native Floridian and personal trainer with an iron-clad will and a lack of interest in books. But it’s not Bobby’s lifestyle that makes him less sympathetic than the other characters—it’s his actions. Stuck in an unpromising life, Bobby parties to distract himself from his circumstances. We’re given limited insight into his psyche, and his actions are seen most vividly through the lenses of his sister Sylvia and girlfriend Carmen, neither of whom are terribly pleased with the person he’s become.
Besides the four members of the Post family and Carmen, Franny’s best friend Charles, and his husband, Lawrence, also come along for the trip, and Sylvia is tutored by a gorgeous local (of the male variety) with the exotically gender-confusing name Joan (pronounced Joe-ahhhn). Straub juxtaposes Franny and Jim’s relationship against those of their family and friends, creating a sense of inquiry into the nature of romantic relationships. Throughout, she provides vivid perspectives that create lasting impressions. That’s what makes Straub’s characters so hard to part with—they linger in the mind, half-promising to continue their stories.