What characterizes a good summer read? I’m no expert on that since I’m generally indifferent to the season when I make my choice. But this year after a string of heavier topics, I decided on Emma Straub’s “The Vacationers” (2014). A trip to Mallorca was just what I needed.
The Post family and friends, Manhattanites all, rent a picture-perfect villa atop a cliff on the island off Spain for a two week get-away. Franny, the matriarch, had high hopes for pulling together her husband Jim, their 18-year-old daughter Sylvia, their son Bobby, his girlfriend Carmen, and Franny’s best friend, Charles, with his husband, Lawrence, for a relaxing two-week vacation.
Yet shortly before they left, Jim, at 60, was fired from his long-term editorial job at Gallant magazine for reasons we soon learn had to do with an affair he was having with a 23-year-old intern. Franny must live with explosive feelings about this blow to their marriage. And beneath this idyllic setting, it seems that everyone has a story.
Franny and Jim are barely civil to Carmen, a brusque fitness guru who is 10 years older than their son and spends most of her time doing lunges and crunches. She and Bobby, who work together at a gym in Miami, are clearly having problems.
Sylvia has just graduated from high school carrying the bitter taste of a cheating boyfriend and looking forward to starting at Brown in the fall. She has only one goal for the summer—to lose her virginity—and a movie-star handsome Spanish tutor looks like he might fit the bill.
Charles and Lawrence await news from New York about an adoption they’ve applied for; Lawrence was the initiator and Charles, the reluctant one. An email notifying them they are on a short list stirs up hidden feelings.
But Franny, a foodie by trade, pulls it all together with her delicious offerings and planned excursions, all the while fuming and grieving over the potential destruction of her marriage.
It turns out this was a perfect summer read for me. It was smart and fun. There was no tsunami, no shark attack, no kidnapping, only a group of people with a boatload of feelings at critical junctures of their lives. Straub brought me along on the trip with her humor and kindness toward the Posts and friends. You know an author has hooked you in when the characters play Scrabble one rainy afternoon and you find yourself hoping she lets you know who won. (She does.) Straub told an interviewer, “For me, in both actual life and fictional life, it’s all about emotional shifts and small internal changes. That’s what’s interesting to me.” And I’ve learned, that’s what hits the spot for me.