The Vactioners by Emma Straub is the sort of book that I wouldn’t have bought without influence. A New York family travelling to Mallorca for a family holiday, my mind instantly jumped to thoughts of boozy holidays in Magaluf – no thank you. If I wanted to vicariously experience young people getting wasted I could go to West Street. Which of course, is a massive assumption of the contents of the novel, it’s nothing like that.
An irresistible, deftly observed novel about the secrets, joys, and jealousies that rise to the surface over the course of an American family’s two-week stay in Mallorca.
For the Posts, a two-week trip to the Balearic island of Mallorca with their extended family and friends is a celebration: Franny and Jim are observing their thirty-fifth wedding anniversary, and their daughter, Sylvia, has graduated from high school. The sunlit island, its mountains and beaches, its tapas and tennis courts, also promise an escape from the tensions simmering at home in Manhattan. But all does not go according to plan: over the course of the vacation, secrets come to light, old and new humiliations are experienced, childhood rivalries resurface, and ancient wounds are exacerbated.
This is a story of the sides of ourselves that we choose to show and those we try to conceal, of the ways we tear each other down and build each other up again, and the bonds that ultimately hold us together. With wry humor and tremendous heart, Emma Straub delivers a richly satisfying story of a family in the midst of a maelstrom of change, emerging irrevocably altered yet whole. Synopsis from GoodReads.
I don’t have much to comment on the story, as to say anything would feel like a spoiler. But, I also found I cared less for the storyline – the events of the holiday – than I did the characters and their development. For a small volume of pages Straub effortless created her characters and set them on their course. She had crafted her world so well I couldn’t see her pulling the strings.
Each of the characters are both wonderful and tiresome, relative to their age and life experience. This left it impossible for me to ever favour one character over the other. I related most to Sylvia, her disillusionment felt familiar. She is dramatic and feels deeply, as any eighteen year old would.
“Sylvia knew she wasn’t bad-looking, she wasn’t deformed, but she knew that there was a vast chasm between her and the girls at school who were beautiful. Her face was a little bit long, and her hair hung limply to her shoulders, neither short nor long, neither blond nor brown, but somewhere in the middle. That was Sylvia’s whole problem: she was the middle.” p.23
“Men where terrible, that was the truth. Men would do anything, say anything, just to get a girl to take her clothes off. They were liars and cheaters and awful people, all of them. She’d always thought of her brother as an older version of herself, a test batch of generic material, but lately she wasn’t sure. Maybe there was something else that came with having a penis, a partial moral blindness located in a secret chamber of the heart. It made her feel like there were bugs crawling all over her, like someone was standing too close behind her and breathing heavily.” p.171
I remember having that realisation, that men didn’t crawl out of a Jane Austen novel.
I wanted to like Franny the most, her resistant nature made it hard. She is both wounded and difficult, in that sort of way we all are. In seeing her through the eyes of the other characters it was difficult to reconcile everyone’s opinions. However, by the end I loved each and every one of them, including Carmen.
“Franny liked to eat, and to feed people, and she wasn’t embarrassed that her body displayed such proclivaties.” p.29
“It was crazy, what young people believed was possible, what so many earnest twenty-three-year-olds took for granted about the rest of their lives.” p.244
The Vacationers is a fantastic book, full of highs and lows that would keep any family holiday interesting.
To sign off:
“Twenty-eight was neither young nor old. Obviously it was young in the scope of someone’s whole life, but it was already getting late in terms of figuring out what you wanted to do. Bobby’s parents got married when they were twenty-three and twenty-five, which seemed normal only in the context of time, as though they were cave people who didn’t expect to live to thirty. But that’s when his friends had started getting married to.” p.277
I’ll be 28 next month, I’ve had similar thoughts.