The Vacationers conjures up a story with as much simplicity and depth as a magical spell. Emma Straub relates the struggles and infidelities of her characters using evocative language that suggests the seductive rhythm of a fairy tale. Long after her husband, Jim, has an affair, Franny Post simmers in an anger defined by her middle-aged nonchalance and the quirky strength of Silvia, her daughter, a girl determined to lose her virginity in Mallorca, where the Post family are on vacation.
Even as she frantically looks at her notebook for things to do before college, Silvia wishes they were spending the whole summer abroad. Franny and Jim know that it’s a good idea, despite the many reasons not to go. Recently made jobless and set adrift, first by infidelity and then by Franny’s cold shoulder, Jim hopes the weeks away will reignite his marriage and enable him to reconnect with his son, Bobby, who sells real estate in Miami. Franny however, just wants to ignore their differences and plan ahead, hoping that the presence of her best friend, Charles, will assuage her anger at her husband.
In The Vacationers, middle-class lives are shattered by a series of unexpected confessionals that exploit character flaws and reveal the cracks in characters’ civilized exteriors. Utilizing her formidable storytelling skills, Straub crafts a strong story that is both literary and entertaining. Told from each character’s point of view (including Charles, his husband, Lawrence, and Bobby’s fitness freak girlfriend, Carmen), the tension mounts as Jim attempts to patch his misdemeanors with Franny, while Franny, even on vacation, continues to rule the Post house with “an iron sphincter.”
Mallorca unfolds like layer cake of gnarled olive trees, spiky palms, and the green-bray mountains, “a summer done right,” the promise of reconnection unfolding with the power of an elixir-like perfume in a landscape always sunny and bright. After the Posts visit the Robert Graves house, Straub spurs us on with Franny’s manipulations as she anoints herself with the desire to have her life back. As the Posts settle into a house gracefully lent out by an old friend of Franny, the romance between Bobby and Carmen is tinged with dour thoughts of debt and Bobby’s need to tide his bank account over with a loan from his parents, at least until the real estate market picks up.
Love for each other fails to cast a greater shadow than that of the Serra de Tramuntana mountains, a symbol for the pantheon of gods and goddesses that once inhabited this magical island. Lawrence (and to a lesser extent Charles) yearn for a child; Silvia is seduced by her handsome Spanish tutor; and Jim has a hard time defining success in terms of accomplishment. Jim still can’t get beyond his affair with the intern Madison Vance and is forced to tiptoe around Franny, who spends most of her waking hours looking at Jim and “wanting to plunge an ice pick through his eyes.”
My favorite character is Franny. She’s not struggling to recapture her youth and doesn't look at sexy Carmen and wish she were fifteen again. Yes, Franny sees sagging skin in the mirror, and yes, when confronted with nubile girls and boys on the beach, she hones in on her aging body, constantly needing reassurance. Franny has made some choices she fears she is too old to correct, yet she doesn’t need Jim to validate her—even though her marriage may have been a scrim, “a false curtain pulled tight over her turbulent inner life.”
Lives play out under the vivid Mediterranean sky as everything moves inexorably toward the end of the vacation. Bobby considers his place in the grand scheme of things while Carmen questions her loyalty. Straub writes with such grace that, like Franny, we are lulled by Mallorca’s hot summer days, where reality arrives with the stormy tide, forever linking the Posts with love and compassion.