Friday, October 3, 2014

Contemporary Fiction: The Vacationers by Emma Straub

The Vacationers is actually Emma Straub's third novel, and even though I had originally intended to read Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures, I just never got around to it, mostly because every time I looked it up on Goodreads the ratings for it had declined until I was convinced I wouldn't much care for it. But the critical reviews for The Vacationers have fared much better, so I decided to give it a shot.

The Situation: The Post family - Franny and Jim, along with their son, Bobby, and their daughter, Sylvia - have decided to leave Manhattan for two weeks and enjoy the sun and sand on the island of Mallorca. This will be Sylvia's last trip before starting her freshman year at Brown University. And Bobby will be bringing his girlfriend Carmen, with whom he lives with in Miami, Florida, where he works in real estate and she works as a personal trainer in a gym. Charles and his husband Lawrence will also be joining the Posts, even though Lawrence is knee deep in work on his latest movie, and the couple is in the middle of adopting a child. Even with everything going on in their private life, they have all decided to take this trip anyway, with all of them staying in the same house on the small island, enjoying whatever Mallorca has to offer.

The Problem: This trip to Mallorca could be viewed as an escape for everyone involved, if only the problems they have at home didn't insist on following them. A change in location doesn't mean that Jim would magically have his job back, or that he didn't sleep with the intern. Being on the island also doesn't mean that Franny will magically forgive him, or stop being an entitled and castrating woman. Both Jim and Lawrence still remain jealous of the friendship that Franny and Charles have always shared, and they all still have a shared dislike of Bobby's girlfriend, Carmen. This of course puts Bobby in a tough spot, but he has other worries of his own, namely a large and seemingly insurmountable debt that he is reluctant to tell his family about. And then there is a Sylvia, the youngest member on the trip, who is desperate to have something great happen on this trip before she goes off to college and attempts to turn herself into someone different from who she has always been. And these seven people are going to attempt to share the same house for two weeks on a Spanish island. 

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel that takes place during a family vacation in Spain. It explores the idea that a change in location doesn't actually change or erase any of the problems a family may have back home. If anything, the trip may shine a spotlight on the issues and force people to deal with them instead of ignore them. Everyone is forced to be in such close proximity to one another with very little hope or chance for escape in a place where none of them knows how to get around or speak the language. Also, jealousies abound on almost every side. Franny is jealous of the intern Jim slept with before losing his job; Jim is jealous of Franny's relationship with Charles; Lawrence is jealous of Charles' relationship with Franny; and no one likes Carmen. Sylvia knows more or less what is going on with her parents, but Bobby is completely in the dark and naive enough to believe that everything is fine, both between his parents and between himself and Carmen. Sylvia is also naive enough to believe that one trip to Mallorca can allow her to change who she is entirely. It's a story that explores the complex relationships between friends and family. Vacations are usually a chance to get away, but the problems at home can sometimes come with you.

My Verdict: The storyline and characters are actually really good, but the writing fails to bring it all together into a cohesive novel. The narrative is often choppy, and the transitions are either non-existent or incredibly rough and jarring. The characters are often incredibly trying and irritating too since most of them are entitled and selfish, but even that is nothing compared to the distracting writing. Even though no one is likeable, it is almost like they aren't expected to be from the very beginning, so it isn't really that big of a disappointment. This could have been an utterly delightful and light beach read if some of the scenes or some of the characters' reactions made more sense or were given better placement within the story. This is the kind of book I can see someone picking up in an airport bookstore on the way to boarding a plane...something to pick up almost by accident, and only something to read as a time filler.

Favorite Moment: When the truth about Bobby's money issues finally comes to light. It isn't so much that it finally happens, but how it happens.

Favorite Character: None of these people are all that likeable. I wouldn't want to spend two weeks with any of them on a Spanish island. But if I had to choose, I would pick Sylvia. I think she is young enough where she could grow up to not be like the rest of her family, although the chance of that happening is incredibly slim. 

Recommended Reading: If you're looking for a light beach read about a troubled vacationing family, I suggest We Were Liars by E. Lockhart. It is a young adult novel, but a good one and well written.

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