The Vacationers by Emma Straub, book review: Trouble in paradise makes for a wry and witty beach read


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The Independent Culture

"Families were nothing more than hope cast out in a wide net, everyone wanting only the best," writes Emma Straub as her protagonists, the Posts and their friends, come to the end of their two-week holiday on the island of Mallorca.

The vacationers in question are Jim Post, until recently editor of the fêted Gallant magazine; his food writer wife Franny, "like Joan Didion, only with an appetite, or Ruth Reichl, but with an attitude problem"; their 18-year-old daughter Sylvia, who's heading off to university in the autumn; Bobby, their 28-year-old son, a Miami-based realtor; his girlfriend, Carmen, a personal trainer at least a decade older than him; Franny's best friend Charles; and Charles's husband Lawrence.

From Central Park West to an idyllic villa nestled in the Mallorcan hills (via first-class flights, obviously), to the casual observer this looks likes the perfect family holiday. The reality, of course, is very different. A sordid affair with a junior editor young enough to be his daughter has already cost Jim his job, and quite possibly his marriage too; the jury's still out on the latter.

Bobby's juggling some serious credit card debt and things with Carmen aren't exactly going well – not that this bothers the rest of the party as none of the Posts particularly like her, nor she them: "Being locked up in this house on Mallorca felt like the day in the fourth grade when Carmen's mother had forgotten to pick her up at the library after school."

Sylvia's nursing a broken heart, though the pangs of which aren't quite enough to distract her from number one on her holiday "to do" list: lose her virginity. Compared to the state of the relationships around them, Charles and Lawrence are quite the perfect couple, but even so, Lawrence is slightly miffed at Franny's commandeering of her best friend for the duration of the trip – "two whole weeks with the Posts was not everyone's idea of a vacation" – not least because the two men are in the middle of making some important decisions about the direction their future together should take.

Straub's novel is cast from the same mould as the likes of Liza Klaussmann's Tigers in Red Weather and Maggie Shipstead's Seating Arrangements, although it's not quite as accomplished as either; nothing really happens and none of the characters is particularly memorable, probably because the consciousness of each is jumped between in a rather arbitrary fashion. That said, The Vacationers is a holiday read in every way with a gently witty narrative that slips down as easily as a beachside cocktail.