As students, “summer reading” usually means heavy classics, the sort of things that will keep your mind from going soft between school years. As adults, vacation time shrivels from three months to 10 days a year, and for those precious few days, book marketers have fashioned a whole new genre called “beach reading.” The idea is that readers want something entertaining but not much more: nothing to emotionally pull you too far away from your poolside chaise, nothing that will make you think too hard on a four-hour flight.
Emma Straub’s latest book aims somewhere between the two, starting with its breezy title, The Vacationers. The Vacationers centers on two generations of the Post family: Parents Frannie and Jim are dealing with infidelity as they ostensibly celebrate 35 years of marriage; their son Bobby is secretly in debt, and his Miamian gym-rat girlfriend, Carmen, has never really fit in with his literary New York family; the Posts’ daughter, Sylvia, is about to go off to college and desperately wants to lose her virginity first. They travel to Mallorca for a two-week vacation with longtime friends Charles and Lawrence, who are trying to adopt a baby.
In the hands of a lesser author, this setup might fall squarely into the oft-maligned genre of “beach reading,” something mildly distracting for a perfect summer day, but with no real substance. It might either suffer for being mundane, or it might end up an overwrought disaster. But Straub has a knack, reminiscent of Lorrie Moore, for writing beautiful prose about ordinary situations. And so these families are more than thinly drawn, upper-middle-class, well-educated, white vacationers. They are people who have cheated on their partners; people who try desperately to be something they’re not; people still trying to grow up, no matter what their ages.
Straub, or her marketers, smartly aimed this book at “beach readers,” but that thankfully seems to be mostly a function of the title and the early-summer release date, not a signal that this book is simply an entertaining plot. The third-person point of view shifts between people throughout the book, exposing the vulnerabilities, one by one, of most of the main characters. Carmen is a particularly interesting outlier: She’s half-Cuban, a personal trainer at a Miami gym, 10 years older than Bobby, and not much of a reader. Bobby’s parents are both writers and can hardly imagine how their son has spent nearly a decade with this tan, toned woman. But more than just standing in contrast to the Post family, Straub gives Carmen a real personality and a real desire to be part of the Posts’ lives.
The stories themselves aren’t surprising, but they are rendered in compelling and graceful prose. The families fracture and heal; fissures are temporarily bandaged in the pristine Mallorcan sun; deep longings are probed and challenged. The book doesn’t so much set up questions—Will Sylvia lose her virginity? Will Charles and Lawrence get their baby? Will Bobby and Carmen stay together? Will Frannie forgive her husband’s adultery?—as it looks at what it means to live within all those uncertainties, which, in the close quarters of their borrowed vacation home, intermingle with unwelcoming intensity.
Although the stories are neatly contained within the two-week vacation, The Vacationers suffers for being a little too pat. Most of the main players get what they want—or realize that they don’t actually want what they thought they did. And when one of the couples finally splits, the reader doesn’t feel the emotional gut-punch of a breakup—it’s just one character quietly exiting the story, and everybody else moving on.
That said, The Vacationers really is perfect summer reading: a beautifully written story that’s neither too depressing nor too charming, one that contains all the aching emptiness of wanting children or sex or companionship. It’s like sitting on a perfect sandy beach and knowing there’s jellyfish in the water, waiting to sting.