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Books, Events

Brooklyn Bugle Book Club: “The Vacationers” A novel by Emma Straub

September 19, 2014

No matter how hard we try, we bring ourselves with us when we travel. “The Vacationers” is a completely absorbing novel that follows the attempts of the Post family to recover their better selves during a two-week family vacation on Mallorca. Recent events in the Post family have been challenging. Jim, a youthful 60, has just been forced to retire from his position as a magazine editor, “to spend more time with his family.” His wife, Franny, is very, very angry as a result. Their older child Bobby, 28, sells real estate in Florida and lives with Carmen, his Cuban-American girlfriend. Carmen is a personal trainer in a fitness and over 40. The younger child, Sylvia, 18, is getting ready to leave for college. As if this mix of currents and shoals wouldn’t produce enough stomach-churning waves, the Posts have opted to share their vacation house with Franny’s best friend, Charles, and his husband, Lawrence.

Each of them is exploring the meaning of loyalty, friendship, and the possibility of forgiveness. Sylvia’s is perhaps the easiest case. She would like to be independent, but the connections of childhood draw her back. Sylvia is determined to lose her virginity before she goes to college, and the arrival of a handsome young Mallorcan to tutor her in Spanish and to help her explore the island appears to give her the opportunity. But to whom does he owe loyalty, Sylvia or her parents who have employed him?

Charles and Lawrence are working out a different set of issues. They have been partners for some time, exclusive partners for much of it, but have only recently married. Yet Charles and Franny have been best friends since college 30 years before. To Lawrence, Charles behaves differently when he is in Franny’s company, and Lawrence would have preferred a different vacation. Charles is one of the few people in Franny’s circle (and in the house) to know the true reason that Jim has left his job, and he feels he must comfort and support Franny. Lawrence’s efforts to balance Charles’ loyalty to his friend with his commitment to their relationship are among the most skillful passages of this novel.

Franny and Jim are deeply connected through their children, and they worry about Bobby’s drift. The worry converts to anxiety and concern as Carmen pushes Bobby to do what they’ve agreed: ask his parents for help paying back his credit card debt. Sylvia and Bobby, though 10 years apart, worry the bounds of sibling fidelity: at the end of a night of clubbing together Sylvia witnesses some casual sex between Bobby and another tourist. Her loyalty to Bobby means that she won’t tell Carmen, but Bobby’s behavior pushes Carmen into confronting her feelings about the relationship all the same. Franny and Jim themselves struggle to work out their own relationship against this sea of desires, anger, and shared lives.

Straub structures this entertaining novel chronologically, and tells her story in the present tense. These choices allow her to tack between points of view quickly and logically, and the novel’s conclusion develops in a way that satisfies everyone, including the reader. It’s a nice reminder of how vacations can heal in unexpected ways. Let us know how your vacations restore you in the comments.

Emma Straub will be appearing at a panel discussion at the Brooklyn Book Festival Sunday, September 21, at noon. More information here.

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