'The Vacationers' takes a wry look at flawed but well-meaning characters

'Vacationers' follows two families who bring their various problems on a trip to Mallorca.

The Vacationers, by Emma Straub, Penguin Group, 304 pp.

The Griswolds have nothing on the Posts in Emma Straub’s wry new novel, The Vacationers.

The Posts haven’t had a family vacation in years. The two weeks in Mallorca are supposed to be a celebration of Franny’s and Jim’s 35th wedding anniversary and daughter Sylvia’s high school graduation. But by the time they get on the plane to Spain, it appears they’re going to need a vacation from this vacation.

“There were things that Jim would have taken out of his bags, if it had been possible,” Jim thinks while waiting for the cab to take them to their airport: “the last year of his life, and the five before that, when it came to his knees; the way Franny looked at him across the dinner table at night … the emptiness waiting on the other side of the return flight, the blank days he would have to fill and fill and fill.”

The odds of Franny and Jim making it to 36 don’t appear promising: Jim had an affair with a 24-year-old intern and has lost both his job as a magazine editor and Franny’s respect.

Sylvia, who is bound for Brown and hopes to never see anyone from her high school ever again, has been trapped in an apartment in the “melting concrete armpit” that is a Manhattan summer with her seething mother and hangdog father.

“When people asked what kind of writer her mother was, Sylvia usually said that she was like Joan Didion, only with an appetite, or like Ruth Reichl, but with an attitude problem,” Straub writes. “She did not say this to her mother.” 

Her older brother Bobby is coming along on the trip with Carmen, his universally derided girlfriend, and has packed plenty of his own unfortunate baggage. (Readers may not share the Post family’s scorn for Carmen, a Latina personal trainer who wears flashy clothes – at least compared to the curvier Franny.)

Rounding out the holiday-goers are Franny’s best friend, Charles, and his husband, Lawrence, who are dealing with tensions of their own. Lawrence, especially, is dreading the entire endeavor. “It seemed like folly to imagine that one could fill a house (or a tent) with relatives and still expect to have a pleasant vacation,” he thinks. Add other people’s relatives and the prospects for enjoyment dim further. “Other people’s families were as mysterious as an alien species, full of secret codes and shared histories.”

Franny, a magazine writer who specializes in food and travel, has rented the house from Gemma, a British friend of Charles who is tall, thin, blonde, and posh “and spoke perfect French, which Franny found profoundly show-offy, like doing a triple-axel at the Rockefeller Center skating rink.”

Over the course of two weeks, the seven of them swim in the pool, eat olives and pasta, go on outings to the beach and museums, take tennis lessons badly and Spanish lessons with somewhat more success (Sylvia’s tutor is a gorgeous young man named Joan), and fight not-so-quietly behind closed doors.

By the end of the two weeks, several characters will have reset the compasses of their lives. On the acid scale, “The Vacationers” is more citric than sulfuric in tone. Straub offers a measure of compassion to her flawed, but mostly well-meaning characters. “What did anyone know about anyone else, including the person they were married to? There were secret parts of every union, locked doors hidden behind dusty heavy drapes,” Franny thinks late in the vacation. “Franny thought she must have them, too, somewhere deep inside, drawers of forgotten indiscretions. She certainly hoped so. It wasn’t any fun to be on the other side, to be the wronged party.”

Yvonne Zipp is the Monitor fiction critic.

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