There’s something light about The Vacationers, the new novel by Brooklyn writer Emma Straub, a seeming ease and effervescence that is at odds with, and plays off against, the darker elements at the core of the book. The book’s tonal approach is perfectly suited for its subject matter: a summer vacation for the Post family, two weeks in a house on Mallorca during which swims will be swum, drinks will be drunk, tennis will be played and generations worth of baggage, angst and deception will come to light.
Pretty much anyone who has taken an extended family vacation will be able to relate to the events of The Vacationers, if not to its particulars.
The vacation is ostensibly to mark Franny and Jim’s 35th wedding anniversary, and the high-school graduation of their daughter Sylvia. The New Yorkers will be joined by Sylvia’s older brother Bobby, who now lives in Florida, and his partner, a significantly older personal trainer and fitness fanatic named Carmen. Also along for the trip are Franny’s oldest friend Charles and his much younger husband, Lawrence.
The situation is ripe for the stuff of English-style comedy – lots of slamming doors and misunderstandings – and Straub plays loosely with those conventions even as she uses the vacation-boundness to reveal the darker subtexts and interrelationships. Franny and Jim may be celebrating, but they’re also reeling in the aftermath of Jim’s affair with an intern at his office, a dalliance that has cost him his job and may cost their marriage, if Franny doesn’t kill him first. Sylvia, betrayed by her high-school boyfriend and scorned for some alcohol-fuelled indiscretions, wants to lose her virginity – thankfully, fate (and novelistic convention) provides her with a sexy Spanish tutor. Charles and Lawrence are watching the phone, desperate for word about their attempt to adopt a baby, even as Charles struggles with whether he wants to be a father. And so much has gone wrong with Bobby’s life – unbeknownst to his parents – that it defies simple summary. The fact that he’s in dangerous debt and needs to borrow money from his now secretly unemployed father is just the tip of the iceberg.
All of this sturm und drang could rightly have been handled with an excess of anguish and pathos (think Scenes from a Marriage with better scenery), and it’s initially somewhat unsettling that it isn’t. One has a sense at first that the characters and their crises are being given short shrift in favour of wry humour.
As the novel unfolds, however, the wisdom of Straub’s approach becomes clear. Rather than potentially collapsing under the weight of the issues (or risking overwhelming and alienating the reader), the lightness, the humour, actually allows the characters to unfold in a more fully realized and complex way. Instead of being defined solely by his failings, for example, Jim emerges as a nuanced, rich character, not always likable, but approachable, understandable.
Franny benefits most from this approach, bursting from the page in a welter of contradictions and complexities. Far from a simplistic caricature of a woman scorned, she emerges as wry and smart, internally conflicted, understanding and driven by her own doubts and desires.
That internal drive, rooted in doubt and desire, is key to the human truths at the core of The Vacationers. All of the characters are touched, in some way, by those drives and their consequences, either directly (as is the case with Jim), or indirectly (as Franny struggles with the repercussions of Jim’s infidelity). The deft lightness of the novel’s tone underscores Straub’s refusal to follow the in-some-ways simpler path, of pillorying and punishing, in favour of reaching for a deeper sense of understanding and conciliation both within the novel and outside of it. By not pushing her characters into corners, by demonstrating their lighter natures and complexities, Straub leaves room for the reader to forgive, and to come to terms with their transgressions.
It’s a subtle and surprising approach, and one which is utterly effective.
As a result, The Vacationers is a charming and enjoyable read, something pitch-perfect for summer. It is also surprisingly, deceptively wise in its insights and understandings, a complex, multifaceted pleasure.
Robert J. Wiersema’s new novel, Black Feathers, will be published next year.