Published May 29, 2014
292 pages (hardcover)
The leaves are turning, the days are sunny but cool and breezy, the evenings are crisp. Perky pansies and magnificent mums are blooming everywhere. Spooky jack-o-lanterns decorate the stoops of every house in the neighborhood. And I have been indulging in pumpkin-spice lattes and pumpkin doughnuts and pumpkin-spice martinis and Pumpkin Pie Blizzards.
Fall is my favorite. And it’s finally here! Hooray!!
And, yet, I just made a rookie mistake. I’d had a hold at the library on Emma Straub’s debut novel, The Vacationers, since June, and, last week, it finally became available. In an incredibly untimely move, I decided to go ahead and read it.
Take one gander at this book’s cover, and you will rightly surmise that this is the quintessential summer book. Need further proof? Scan any “best of” list from this past summer, and The Vacationers is bound to be on the list (I’ve included a smattering in “the hype” section below to give you a taste).
The book is about the Posts, a dysfunctional family renting a home in Mallorca for a two-week summer vacation. Mom and Dad are experiencing some marital issues (Dad just slept with his twenty-three-year-old intern and was subsequently canned). Grown son and his cougar girlfriend are also struggling. Son is a real-estate agent in Florida and hasn’t been able to make ends meet since the market crashed. His parents don’t know that he has started working at his girlfriend’s gym and selling nutritional supplements on the side (not appropriate Post behavior) . . . and, to make matters worse, he has managed to get himself into a pile of debt. Daughter has just graduated from high school and is headed to Brown in a couple months. She just found out that the guy she was dating was simultaneously dating her best friend behind her back. She is thrilled to be away from them and just wants to forget everyone she knows from high school. She’s also determined not to go to Brown a virgin. Also along on the trip are Mom’s long-time BFF and his husband. They are experiencing the stresses of trying to adopt a baby.
Put a bunch of unhappy relatives/close friends together in a beautiful house in a beautiful land and things are bound to go swimmingly, right? Right! Yes, there are fights, cold shoulders, and plenty of snotty and snide remarks (and even a few punches thrown!), but when you have escaped from the stresses and unhappiness of real life (and you have access to a pool and beautiful beaches and amazing tapas and ample wine), you begin to remember and appreciate the important things in life. Vacations can be truly redemptive.
Look, I like a good simile. A good simile can be really funny, can add flavor and dimension to a character or setting, and can spice up writing a lot. But, when it comes to similes, you can definitely have too much of a good thing.
Allow me to give you some examples. All of the following similes are in the first fifty pages of this book (and, mind you, this is not an exhaustive list):
- “Now whenever Franny or Jim spoke to someone who kept a car in Manhattan, they reacted with quiet horror, like people who’d been subjected to the rantings of a mentally ill person at a cocktail party.”
- “She’d been shipped off to boarding school outside Paris and spoke perfect French, which Franny found profoundly show-offy, like doing a triple axel at the Rockefeller Center skating rink.”
- “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.”
- “They’d been together for years, off and on, but none of the Posts seemed to care one way or the other, at least in polite company, the way one might ignore the flatulence of an otherwise friendly dog.”
- “Lawrence thought she looked like one of the Spice Girls after a decade out of the spotlight, slightly worse for wear.”
One or two would have been fine (cute and funny, even!). But all of them together? Overkill. As I was reading, I started thinking to myself, “OK, we get it. Similes are your thing. Aren’t you clever? Now, make it stop.” With so many similes, it seems like Straub is just trying a little too hard. That’s an odd bone to pick, I know, but it was notably annoying.
Otherwise, the book’s writing is pretty readable and enjoyable. There’s a good reason (actually, there are several good reasons) this book made it onto all those best-of-summer lists. For starters, it’s not too deep or full of itself. This is a pretty typical dysfunctional family dealing with pretty typical issues, but the book is good vacation fluff, so it’s not all sad and depressing and heavy. The Posts don’t do much but sit around and gossip and bitch and talk and swim and drink and argue and eat lots of delicious food and play Scrabble and go grocery shopping and play tennis. There are lots of funny bits and some sweet bits. It is short and reads very quickly (lots of dialogue, chapters that aren’t too long and are divided into very short sections). Not to mention, it’s set in beautiful Mallorca at a stunning vacation home with a pool.
But keep in mind that the Posts are on vacation for the entire book. If you are likewise on vacation (especially a family vacation), The Vacationers would be totally relatable and fun . . . but if you’re not on vacation, you may get pissed that the Posts get to be at a fabulous house in Mallorca while you’re stuck going to work or running errands or carting your kids to soccer practice.
Need a book for the pool or beach or a plane ride? This is a good choice. Need a book to read with a glass of hot cider while you watch the vibrant leaves fall from the trees? This is not your book. It’s fall, and it’s time to step away from the summer books.
- One of New York Post’s “29 Best Books of the Summer”
- One of Mashable’s “The Top 24 Summer Books of 2014”
- One of Entertainment Weekly’s “Summer Must-Reads: 10 books for your beach bag”
- One of Glamour’s “The 10 Best Books to Add to Your Summer Reading List Right This Second”
- One of Parade’s “20 of the Summer’s Best Books”
- An Amazon Best Book of the Month for June 2014
- An Indie Next List pick for June 2014
Who should read it: If you’re planning to go to the islands for the winter holidays, by all means, bring this book. Otherwise, hold off on it until next summer.
Want to read along with me? Reviews of these books are coming soon:
- One Kick by Chelsea Cain (the #1 LibraryReads List selection for August 2014)
- All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood by Jennifer Senior (an Amazon Best Book of the Month for February 2014 and New York Times best seller)
- The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton (a LibraryReads List selection for August 2014; an Indie Next List pick for September 2014)