I am going to admit this up front: when I started reading The Vacationers by Emma Straub, I was a bit unsure. It’s not a book I would gravitate toward, but I knew it was a book I would enjoy. There was something about it that reminded me of Maine by J. Courtney Sullivan, a book that I basically anger-read because I was so irritated that I wasn’t reading another completely delicious book like Commencement (though in hindsight I should’ve seen it coming, and I have a lot of thoughts on Sullivan’s writing in general – specifically that she’s very good at what she does, but I digress – that’s fodder for another post). I was prepared to force myself to read The Vacationers.
Before you read any further, know that I did change my tune! I enjoyed it, it was the perfect book to read while lounging poolside during my break between summer camp and back to school. It lacked a bit of the urgency I usually crave in my beach reads (the kind where you find yourself staying up later than you should or developing a weird tan line from holding the book in front of you all day), but I have decided that’s because it’s more than a beach read. It’s a life read.
What do I mean by “life read”? Well, my oh my, did this book just read as real. I felt like I knew the characters, and I loved that we got all of their perspectives on the Mallorcan retreat they all seemed to be dragged on against their will. That is one of my favorite narrative devices in literature – the use of multiple perspectives to weave a story. I love it because it often provides insight that wouldn’t otherwise gain, and I’m always surprised at how much more likable characters can be when you’ve heard their voice and their thoughts. Or maybe I’m incredibly gullible and prone to seeing the good in people, even when they do a million things to make themselves wholly unlikable (BOBBY). So without any further adieu, here are my thoughts, character-by-character:
Franny: I wanted to feel bad for Franny, I really did. What a horrible mess Jim made for her. If I was her, I would be so angry, so hurt, I can’t even imagine what I would do. But at the same time, there was something so irritating about her. I think it was the way she was often described by other characters – particularly Lawrence and Sylvia. It just seemed like she was selfish and had a flair for the dramatic that would really grate on my nerves. By the end of the book, I admired her willingness to forgive, but not to forget, and not too quickly. And her personality seemed a bit more fun than I had initially given her credit for.
Jim: Ugh, Jim. As my husband would say, “what a maroon.” I mean really, how cliche could he be? The young intern (I hear you Jim, “editorial assistant”)?! But Straub did a great job of making him seem at least a little sorry, though still gross, and I ultimately decided that he just seemed more like a bumbling fool than a slimy philanderer.
Sylvia: SYLVIA! How I loved Sylvia! Regardless of whether or not you “were Sylvia” in high school, you can relate to Sylvia. I was so happy that she was able to cross an item off her pre-college “to do” list with Joan, though I wanted to punch him straight in the mouth after the beach trip. I was even more happy at her attitude toward him – there are so many things she could’ve done, she could’ve been the woman scorned, or been a weepy mess, and instead she just sort of owned the experience for what it was and gave him a high five. Go Sylvia!
Bobby: Another maroon! One whose mistakes were laid all out on the table for us to judge and who certainly did not do himself any favors. He was like an adult toddler, just a man who had not yet grown up. He seemed to be awakening to that reality at the end of the book though, and I always appreciate a character who gains some self-awareness and uses that to better him or herself.
Charles and Lawrence: I am putting these two together because I just love their relationship. We got glimpses of them as individuals, but so much of what stuck out to me was their understanding of their relationship and the others’ characterization of their relationship. It just seemed like a strong, happy union. When Charles was trying to tell Lawrence of his infidelity with the “bohunk art dealer from the gallery,” I found myself actually holding my breath, but dear, sweet, wise Lawrence already knew, and loved Charles anyway. It just reeked of confidence and security and I loved it.
Carmen: It was hilarious to me how universally un-liked Carmen was by everyone else, and in many ways, I think that actually made her more likable. I totally understood her perspective and her reasons for doing everything she did (even throwing Bobby under the bus). I was glad that she just dumped Bobby and moved on with her life. Though Carmen and I would never be friends in real life (we have virtually nothing in common), she’s a girl I’d like to see happy.