The Vacationers: A Novel
“. . . hopefully, with the cold, dark days of winter soon upon us, Emma Straub will huddle up next to the radiator and return to the literature that is in her blood.”
There is a mathematical formula of sorts in Emma Straub’s entertaining new novel The Vacationers, a geometry of character, setting, and plot that makes this the lightweight page turner that it is.
What there is not is any sort of depth, plot, or real emotion, as The Vacationers is a throwback to the ’80s, to the time of big shoulder pads, big neckties, and cinched waists. It recalls the heyday of Jackie Collins, a time in which each character had a secret that supplied his or her motivation within the context of the plot. And thus, here we have Hollywood Wives with cell phones, Dynasty watched over WiFi.
And here we have plot # 278 in the handbook of tired old plots: the gathering of the family.
New York elite couple Franny and Jim. She’s a writer who travels the world searching out the very best food (her daughter refers to her as being like “Joan Didion, but with an appetite, or like Ruth Reichl, but with an attitude problem”) who feels unloved because she has gained a middle-aged spare tire as a result of all that eating. He’s the just-fired ex-head of an Esquire-y glossy called Gallant. They rent a house on Mallorca from tall, elegant Gemma, who is a frenemy to Franny and a dear dear dear friend of Charles, who is Will to Franny’s Grace, only with the volume turned up to 11. The lovey-dovey, touchy-feelyness of their bond is a thing to behold and certainly nothing usually beheld when gay men and straight women are friends.
Travelling with her parents to the island off Spain where the rest of the extended family will gather is Sylvia, a teenage daughter of the blank-faced, pouty sort whose diary entry of things to do before college that fall is fairly brief:
“1. Buy extra-long sheets. 2. Fridge? 3. Get a tan. (Fake?) (Ha, kill me first.) (No, kill my parents.) 4. Lose virginity.”
It’s that fourth thing that’s the secret. Franny and Jim intend to give her the sheets and the fridge; the tan, in Mallorca, is pretty much a given.
Meeting Franny and Jim on the island are Charles (of course—Franny seemingly never goes anywhere without him) and his “boyfriend” Lawrence (Secret: these two men, whose relationship exists in the limbo imposed upon all same-sex couples before the overturning of DOMA giving the book a vaguely aged feel, are about to adopt a baby!), as well as Franny and Jim’s son Bobby (Secret: he needs money, fast, as he has run afoul of the vitamin and supplement mafia!) and his girlfriend Carmen, who is a decade older than he and, as a personal trainer who works in a Florida gym, has a fashion sense that steers toward stretchy fabrics and neon colors, which is why we all hate her (Secret: Carmen has about had it with Bobby!).
Which leaves Franny and Jim and their secrets.
Well, Franny’s isn’t much of a secret. She just wants everyone to get along for two lousy weeks in paradise in the palatial estate that they’ve rented from Gemma. Plus she feels unloved and unlovely. Much like Nora Ephron’s hating her neck, Franny hates her paunch, and especially hates the fact that her husband Jim, who is no great prize (but still!), has cheated on her.
So Franny’s secret revolves around trying to keep the secret about the fact that she is very much considering divorcing her husband. (Secret: Franny is in a midlife crisis and experiencing a free-fall! She is an accident waiting to happen!)
Which leaves Jim.
His secret is all about someone named Madison Vance (and if that’s not a Jackie-Collins-worthy character name, I don’t know what is). Seems that Jim and Madison had a thing (Secret: Jim had an affair with an intern named Madison Vance—an affair that, once discovered inexplicably cost him his job, as the directors of the magazine for some reason feared that news of this May-December relationship making the gossip columns would sink the magazine!). And that Jim still has lingering lust for Madison Vance, lust that creeps up on him with he and his daughter visit a museum in Mallorca in a strangely porn-y way:
In his potent daydream, “Jim saw Madison Vance’s naked body. He’d been surprised the first time he’d reached his hand inside her skirt and felt her pussy, waxed and cool, as smooth as a hotel pillowcase.”
Now, the ick factor alone of the comparison of Madison Vance’s skin to a pillowcase—especially a hotel pillowcase—should be enough, but Straub continues along to this:
“It was the kind of thing Franny would never have done on principle—she was full bush, always, and proud of it, like she was some kind of Playboy Playmate. Madison was the opposite, the slick result of youth raised on Internet porn. She’d groaned the second Jim slid his palm against her clit. When he was her age, he’d barely known what a clitoris was.”
From Beverly Hills, you can hear Jackie Collins laughing.
And offering to show the young author how it is done.
In Straub’s hands, hands that have, heretofore, typed only fiction of the most literate sort, most especially in the collection of short stories called Other People We Married, in which she showed promise of producing literary fiction of the most exquisite sort, the passage stands out, and not because it is in any way erotic, or even revealing of the sort of detritus that we all cling to in the dark recesses of our imagination. No, it stands out because, in the context of this pleasant, easy read, it seems intrusive, even embarrassing for both reader and author. And very likely to poor Franny as well, as she, I suspect, would have preferred to keep her bush to herself.
After jolting the literary world into awareness of her talents with Other People We Married, which was published by a nearly nonexistent press, Emma Straub followed up with her major press debut, Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures, a tale of old Hollywood, which had the feel of having been sitting in a drawer somewhere, waiting for something else to get into print first.
Now, with The Vacationers she takes another step toward formula writing, offering her readers something that is pleasant enough, and Jim’s lewd daydream aside, certainly inoffensive, what with its supporting characters, like the tennis pro who was once the basis for Franny’s own daydreams back when he wore that little pigtail and had such a bad temper on the court; and the hunky local kid, who gets hired on as Syliva’s tutor and tour guide, who may or may not help her out with #4 on her list of things she needs for school.
Bad luck that the guy’s name is Joan, which we are told again and again is pronounced “Jo-annnnnnnnn,” which I think is supposed to macho it up. Still, given that we are reading the name and not hearing it said, it is confusing as hell every time the women (Carmen excepted—as Carmen is wise, Carmen is noble and Carmen is strong and should be played by Jennifer Lopez in the film version) swoon over “Joan.”
May Ms. Straub have a great success with The Vacationers. I believe she will. With it, she perfectly hits the target for summer reading. But hopefully, with the cold, dark days of winter soon upon us, Emma Straub will huddle up next to the radiator and return to the literature that is in her blood.