I, alongside almost everyone else I know, read Emma Straub’s hit novel Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures when it was still in its glistening hardback edition; so I was anxious to get my hands on her latest, The Vacationers. Her new book reveals the tumultuous ins and outs of the Post family (Franny and Jim and their children, Sylvia and Bobby), native New Yorkers who have a lot more baggage than a few carry-ons.
The family does what many wealthy families do when things hit the fan: ignore their problems and hope an extravagant family vacation will provide either necessary perspective to make complex choices or simply serve as a distraction that may evolve into never discussing said issues again.
Each member of the Post family, as well as the friends who tag along for the vacation to Mallorca, is in a time of great personal transition – the vacation for most serves as a sort of “one last hurrah” before things get serious. The characters also seem to represent the cycles of relationships, or the major milestones within them. There’s Sylvia, an 18-year-old (and nod to Straub’s teenaged readers at “Rookie”) who is just starting out romantically and sexually, interested in losing her virginity before she goes to college and moving on from the betrayal of her high school best friend and sort-of boyfriend.
Sylvia’s brother Bobby is delaying the inevitable breakup with his fitness-obsessed older girlfriend, Carmen. Family friends Lawrence and Charles are waiting to hear if they’ve been selected as parents to an adoptive child. Finally, Sylvia’s parents, Jim and Franny, are attempting to reconcile after Jim’s affair with a 23-year-old intern – excuse me, editorial assistant – at his journal, Gallant (from which he has been subsequently fired).
Infidelity is a huge theme in the book, as are the ways in which men can hurt women. Straub articulated a gnawing fear I’ve always had as a woman who dates men: that no matter what a wonderful girlfriend, wife, or mother I may be, no matter how unselfish or thin or patient, my partner will one day cheat on me. The inevitable nature of infidelity, no matter if it’s a fantasy or a reality, an emotional affair or a physical one, is exposed here, alongside women’s reactions and men’s excuses.
Every character in the book has been on one side or the other of infidelity. For instance, there’s the more stereotypical affair of Jim, who strays after thirty-five years of marriage and two children, yet still spends the vacation guiltily fantasizing about long-legged Madison Vance. Franny attempts to take a kind of cringe-worthy revenge on her husband by hitting on the much-younger Spanish tutor Joan and the former tennis star with whom she arranges lessons. For me though, it was Bobby’s constant cheating on Carmen and his justifications for doing so that I found the most disturbing.
Sylvia, for her part, seems to have a more realistic view of love than any member of her family, perhaps because she’s a constant witness to their mistakes. She begins a goal-oriented flirtation with her Spanish tutor Joan that induces nostalgia in readers who have experienced the fleeting, manic glee of a summer romance.
Straub, through Sylvia, touches on issues facing young girls today: slut-shaming, the gossip chain of social media, the endless interpretations of text messages and emails, and the realization that every relationship, even the seemingly perfect one, has unpleasant secrets.
In reading reviews of contemporary novels, I’ve come to realize that the word “breezy,” when used to describe a book, translates to “somewhere between literature and chick lit.” Straub’s The Vacationers is just that, and as a writer myself, I’m trying hard to overcome my visceral negative reaction to this seemingly new genre. There’s a whisper going around the publishing world that many new novels are nothing more than middle-grade reads with adult themes: the sex and drugs are still there, but the voice is a “breezy” and accessible young adult one.
I’m not sure how to feel about this. On one hand, I really needed a break from the three volumes of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s epic My Struggle I’ve been on an Odyssean journey with for the past month, but on the other, vacillating between that and The Vacationers made this new genre all the more visible. Really though, it’s unfair to compare the two, and I’m a big believer in “who cares what you’re reading as long as it’s something.”
While I can honestly say I’d rather be doing anything else than reading anything Jennifer Weiner writes about “being taken seriously” as a writer of chick lit, I could almost see her point while reading The Vacationers. The fact that people would write off an enjoyable and fun read just because it doesn’t highlight their pseudo-intellectual side when they’re reading it in a coffee shop in Brooklyn is just as annoying as people who think they know about literature because they’ve read Sophie Kinsella.
Many of us read to escape, or at least to focus on someone else’s drama for a change. The more engrossing and less complicated the novel, perhaps the easier that is, so I devoured The Vacationers in a single day. Maybe it’s time for readers to stop worrying about the “literary street cred” of books they choose and instead focus on reading and writing books that they truly enjoy – without feeling any guilt.