Title: The Vacationers
Author: Emma Straub
No. of Pages: 304
Origins: Riverhead Hardcover
Release Date: 29 May 2014
Bottom Line: Uncannily accurate portrayal of the difficulties of relationships and the rewards that come from them
“For the Posts, a two-week trip to the Balearic island of Mallorca with their extended family and friends is a celebration: Franny and Jim are observing their thirty-fifth wedding anniversary, and their daughter, Sylvia, has graduated from high school. The sunlit island, its mountains and beaches, its tapas and tennis courts, also promise an escape from the tensions simmering at home in Manhattan. But all does not go according to plan: over the course of the vacation, secrets come to light, old and new humiliations are experienced, childhood rivalries resurface, and ancient wounds are exacerbated.
This is a story of the sides of ourselves that we choose to show and those we try to conceal, of the ways we tear each other down and build each other up again, and the bonds that ultimately hold us together. With wry humor and tremendous heart, Emma Straub delivers a richly satisfying story of a family in the midst of a maelstrom of change, emerging irrevocably altered yet whole.”
Thoughts: Families are the people who bring out the best and worst in you. They are the ones you cannot wait to see but also cannot wait to leave. Similarly, family vacations are something to be anticipated and dreaded. Any vacation is always worth some excitement, but even the happiest of families become somewhat fraught with tension after a period of time together. So, when The Vacationers opens up with the Post family in the throes of preparing for their two-week Mallorca vacation, one knows that the next two weeks are going to be anything but idyllic.
However, the troubles during the trip lie not in spending time together but rather the issues they brought with them onto the island. Old jealousies arise between spouses and best friends. Sibling rivalry heats up even after years apart. Lingering doubts about compromises and other promises become prominent. Then there are the issues behind Jim’s sudden retirement. Without the distractions of everyday life, all of the little ills and hurts that the Posts ignore throughout the year suddenly come to the fore and require action that no one is quite willing to take.
Ms. Straub presents the highs and lows of families and vacations with uncanny accuracy. While the setting may be more luxurious than what most readers may experience, all readers will recognize the functional dysfunction of the Post family. Everything is there within the microcosm of the Posts: the desire for children to find their own place outside of their parents’ shadow competing with the children’s need for parental approval no matter what their age, the jealousy that comes from a best friend who is not a spouse, the hurts and harm one selfish action can have on the family proper, and more. She also showcases the love that binds them and keeps them together. Ms. Straub reminds readers that in even the most fractured relationships, love still finds a way to take its place alongside the hurt feelings.
Yet, at no point in time does Ms. Straub ever present family relationships as easy and foregone conclusions. Everyone on the Post family trip must work towards maintaining their relationship’s happiness. Some are willing to try more than others, and some make the decision to try not at all. In this way, what occurs during the vacation is very natural and normal and quite atypical for a novel. There is a universal quality to the narrative that belies the fictional elements of the story. While a reader does not necessarily become an unobserved member of the Post family, it is all too easy for readers to substitute their own family members into the narrative, making it less fictional and a bit more uncomfortably true to life.
When not discussing the Post family issues, Ms. Straub brings to life in exacting detail the beauty of Mallorca. The house in which the Posts stay is exquisitely described, as are each excursion around the island. The food Franny serves makes a reader’s mouth water, while everything from the breeze to the heat of the sun to the sound of the pool makes a reader desperately crave his or her own Mallorca vacation. It is a truly idyllic backdrop against which the Posts’ issues are that much more mundane.
The Vacationers is all about the trials and tribulations faced by families the world over. It is about the difficulties of marriage and whether couples are willing to stick it out through the tough times. It is about the changing nature of relationships and the willingness of each partner to compromise to make the other happy. Ms. Straub perfectly captures the frustrations and joys that come with being part of a family.