The Vacationers by Emma Straub: An intelligent beach read

Cover image At first glance The Vacationers didn’t appeal – beach reads aren’t my kind of thing – but it’s published by Picador (one of my favourite imprints), Then, Naomi at The Writes of Women tweeted approvingly about it and annethology also seemed keen so I quit prevaricating and started reading. It seems they were right: Emma Straub’s novel is a very smart piece of commercial fiction – entertaining, peopled with entirely believable characters and, best of all, written with a sharp wit and acute observation.

Jim and Franny are scrambling to finish their packing before racing off to the airport with their daughter Sylvia. They’re flying to Mallorca for a two-week holiday in the stone villa they’ve rented just far enough from the coast to lift them up above the hoi-polloi. It’s soon clear that they’re taking rather more baggage than the cases they’re packing – Jim has lost his job after an affair with an intern, Franny can hardly contain her fury and Sylvia is preoccupied by the Facebook photos of her drunkenly snogging her classmates. When they arrive at the villa they’re jet-lagged and fractious. Into this walks their son Bobby; Carmen, the girlfriend for whom Franny can barely mask her contempt; Charles, her dearest friend and his husband Lawrence. There’s a great deal of angst, someone stomps off never to be seen again, people misbehave, someone gets punched, hopes are met and dashed – much like real life really – all served up with a slyly wicked humour. No one leaves unchanged.

The joy of this book is largely in its characters. Jim is suitably hangdog but having difficulty in banishing thoughts of his intern; Fran is a seething cauldron of resentment but determined that everyone will enjoy themselves; Sylvia picks away at her Facebook shame while nurturing hopes of her gorgeous Spanish tutor; Bobby and Carmen obsessively exercise; Charles frets about whether he can overcome his child-rearing anxieties while Lawrence can hardly contain his excitement when an email arrives from the adoption agency. Straub’s deft portrayals are a delight and her wit sharp as a tack. It’s an indulgent pleasure – an intelligent piece of fiction with enough bite to lift it far above the usual slick beach read.

10 thoughts on “The Vacationers by Emma Straub: An intelligent beach read”

  1. I completely agree with you, lovely review. I was pleasantly surprised by this novel (Naomi’s influence got me reading it too) the characters are so marvellously real.

    You mention it’s events are much like life, and that no one leaves unchanged and I think that is a spot on observation. You could mistake the novel for a story on Sylvia coming of age, but in a way each character ‘comes of age’ at different points in their lives. Charles accepts fatherhood, Bobby begins to discover who he is…. it’s a wonderful demonstration that it doesn’t matter what your age adult life doesn’t switch on at 18, the bulb flickers. You won’t suddenly wake up and find ‘boom, I’m a successful human being’.

    1. Thanks, Alice, and you’re absolutely right – there’s a lot of growing up that gets done by every one no matter what age they are. Some lovely warm moments it, too.

  2. Thanks for linking to my post, Susan, and glad you enjoyed the novel. I think its packaging/ cover picture is unfortunate as, despite the light touch and stream of humour, it’s a serious take on the struggles of ordinary life. As Alice says above, everyone grows up to a degree in the course of this entertaining story.

    1. You’re welcome, Anne, and I agree about the jacket. That’s why it kicked around my desk for some time before I got around to it.

  3. Well written characters can be taken anywhere and can do anything while keeping the reader engaged, it sounds like a great new voice who has chosen to take her characters on holiday, a clever device to attract a wider range of readers perhaps. Avid readers often find out about gems word of mouth, or blog of word 🙂 however this might become a bestseller as it is marketed as entertainment right before the season of summer escape.

    1. Definitely a cleverly timed piece of publishing, Claire. I’m sure it will do well this summer.

  4. I read her first novel ‘Laura Lamont’s life in pictures’ when it came out and although that was rather a novel of two halves – one very good, one less gripping, she showed promise in that. I like the sound of this novel a lot – so will look out for it.

Leave a comment ...

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: