|7/24/2014 11:41:00 AM|
Emma Straub Takes a Good Look at How Other People Go On Vacation
"The Vacationers" by Emma Straub
Reviewed by Ron CharlesPlotting your summer vacation is a task freighted with weighty decisions, and the weightiest things you'll pack are books. Should you bear down or let yourself go? Is this the summer you finally tackle "Anna Karenina"? Or is it time to stop lugging around Thomas Piketty's "Capital" and put something in the suitcase that you might actually read - something with embossed, reflective type on the cover?
Go ahead, you're on vacation: No one in Cancun cares that you're loving the Divergent trilogy.
But even if the hottest thing you'll experience this summer is your hot weather, that's no reason to stay home. Consider the vicarious thrill of reading about how other people get away, how they manage the demands of scheduled frivolity, how they cram friends and family into a small space for a few days of artificial intimacy. This month offers two first-class literary voyages to the Mediterranean with no chance of losing your luggage. One novel is light, the other dark - a holiday of reading that will make even your most disastrous vacation seem like a day at the beach.
Emma Straub's "The Vacationers" is so much fun that I'd be willing to housesit her cat. A romantic comedy that evokes the classics, the story opens at the start of the Post family's much-anticipated two-week trip to Spain. "The Posts hadn't vacationed in years," Straub tells us, "not like this." Franny Post, the all-controlling wife and mother, "the maypole around which the rest of the world had to dance and twirl," has spent months planning every detail, which, of course, guarantees a tour of frustration. "The Posts were masters of self-delusion," and it doesn't help that everyone going along is harboring some unspeakable secret: Franny's 60-year-old husband didn't retire; he was fired for having sex with an intern - just what you want to learn before a European getaway to celebrate your 35th wedding anniversary. Meanwhile, Franny's hot-shot son is up to his pecs in unsold muscle powder and debt. And her usually sensible daughter has drawn up a list of Things to Do Before College that concludes with "Lose virginity."
As soon as the Posts cross the Atlantic, Straub squeezes them into awkward situations designed to reveal more than your old high school bathing suit. Franny has invited along her oldest friend, a gay man and his husband, who quietly resents the way Franny makes him feel invisible. And Franny's son has brought along his much-too-old girlfriend, a fitness fanatic who looks down on the flabby Posts just as much as they look down on her. When a hunky Spanish tutor enters the mix, Straub has all the ingredients for a delicious comedy of hurt feelings and leaping hearts.
Set down on the idyllic island of Majorca in the Mediterranean Sea, the Posts confront that universal complaint of vacationing families everywhere: There is nothing to do but get on one another's nerves. Still, that's plenty of activity for Straub to spin one beguiling scene after another, exposing spots of annoyance slathered with sunscreen. Much of the comedy springs from the tension between being required to have the best time in the world and wanting to stab someone with an ice pick.
It's not easy to keep a whole novel lazily floating around the pool like this, but Straub manages it by shifting from one character to another, conveying each guest's private thoughts - and, fortunately, these guests tend to think in an uninterrupted series of wry truisms. "What were parents anyway," Franny's daughter asks, "except two people who had once thought they were the smartest people in the world?" Contemplating her adulterous husband, Franny admits, "Like most things, sex got better with age until one hit a certain plateau, and then it was like breakfast, unlikely to change unless one ran out of milk and was forced to improvise."
Before this summer vacation is over, hearts will break, fists will fly, and too much olive oil will flow. But for all the Posts' irritation with one another on sunny Majorca, in the end, it's not the heat, it's the humility. Straub knows that "families were nothing more than hope cast out in a wide net, everyone wanting only the best." In these pages - so funny, so wise and, yes, even so sweet - she's created the best feel-good story of the summer.
Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. © 2014, Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group
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