Book Review: The Vacationers by Emma Straub.

the-vacationers-by-emma-straubType: Paperback, 293 pages

Publisher: Picador, June 5, 2014 (first published in 2014)

Setting: Mallorca, Spain

The Vacationers by Emma Straub is probably one of the few books that I’d buy on a whim online or at the bookstore. Simply because the book’s title may have appeared online as an ad in relation to something I’ve read before. And upon reading the synopsis at the back cover, I’d find that it has just enough value to grace the shelves in my home. Why I say this is due to the fact that I have never heard of Emma Straub before and I usually don’t go for these kind of books. Fiction yes, but not one with the entire emotional baggage, from adultery to betrayal, lies and more hidden secrets than the underwear in my wardrobe!

The Vacationers kicked off with the Post family packing and preparing for a two-week vacation in Mallorca, Spain. Franny Post, wife, mother and author by occupation, had planned the vacation for her family (her husband Jim and daughter Sylvia), her eldest son Bobby and his girlfriend Carmen who is at least ten years older than he is, and her gay best friend Charles and his husband Lawrence. The vacation was supposed to be one of merry times, sand, surf and sea, and laughter in the sun, a place and time to spend valuable moments with one another, despite the deep dark secrets that each of them harbour prior to the trip.

As is always the case, however, a book like this would have secrets and lies carried by each person which is enough to destroy everything that every one of them had built for themselves and for the other individual in their lives. Indeed it does.

Synopsis from Goodreads:

An irresistible, deftly observed novel about the secrets, joys, and jealousies that rise to the surface over the course of an American family’s two-week stay in Mallorca.

For the Posts, a two-week trip to the Balearic island of Mallorca with their extended family and friends is a celebration: Franny and Jim are observing their thirty-fifth wedding anniversary, and their daughter, Sylvia, has graduated from high school. The sunlit island, its mountains and beaches, its tapas and tennis courts, also promise an escape from the tensions simmering at home in Manhattan. But all does not go according to plan: over the course of the vacation, secrets come to light, old and new humiliations are experienced, childhood rivalries resurface, and ancient wounds are exacerbated.

This is a story of the sides of ourselves that we choose to show and those we try to conceal, of the ways we tear each other down and build each other up again, and the bonds that ultimately hold us together. With wry humor and tremendous heart, Emma Straub delivers a richly satisfying story of a family in the midst of a maelstrom of change, emerging irrevocably altered yet whole.

Franny Post was hiding the fact that her husband Jim had an affair with an intern as old as their daughter Sylvia. The act itself had caused a domino effect in Jim’s life, from the embarrassing confrontation with his company management board which led to his dismissal from the company to the icy cold treatments that his wife is giving him at home.  Thankfully, by the time the vacation ended, Jim and Franny’s marriage had seemed to be on the mend and they might just pull through after all.

Bobby is dating Carmen, a fitness freak and personal trainer at the gym where he trains. Despite his parents’ efforts to pay through their noses for his college education and showering him with even more attention than they did to their younger daughter Sylvia, his job at the gym involves selling muscle gain powder and trying to be a personal trainer just like Carmen. He initially had a job as a real estate agent in Miami but when the market started to dip, he tried to give being a trainer a shot. In a futile attempt to make fast cash, he eventually got involved in what seemed like a protein shake pyramid scheme that left him in a huge debt of $150,000 and he hardly made a cent. The duo occupy a part of the story almost entirely separate from all the other vacationers (literally). Although Carmen is always “seen” in her workout clothes, doing various exercises by the pool, she appears to be a kind and stable force in Bobby’s life which is a good thing. Sadly, this did not seem enough to be enough of a reason to be one of the family, probably because she is so much older than he is.

Hence, a part of Bobby’s agenda for the trip was to tell his parents that even at 28, he still needed help, particularly financial help. He had managed to avoid dealing with this until Carmen forced him to spill the beans one night during dinner. That had gotten the ball rolling, gave the story an interesting poke and all the seams began to fall apart. And when Bobby decided to go out clubbing in Mallorca, taking his sister Sylvia with him instead of Carmen, things take a turn for the worse. This eventually comes out and Carmen leaves him and Mallorca for good.

So far, Charles and Lawrence are the least problematic holiday-goers on the trip, although they aren’t actually off the hook either. Lawrence isn’t took keen on his husband Charles’ unnatural closeness with Franny but because they have been best friends for decades, he had no choice but to let it go and do his own thing instead. On a lighter and probably happier note, Charles and Lawrence are preparing to welcome baby Alphonse into their home, a baby boy they had adopted through the agency before they left for Mallorca. Sylvia joins the gay couple in the least problematic group, although she did have a crush on her Spanish tutor, Joan (pronounced ‘Jo-ahhhn’), and spent the entire novel trying to flirt with him in the most American way possible. I don’t blame Joan for having not noticed it from the start.

What I liked about the book was the melting pot of characters. Each one has a different personality and once these various personalities were thrown into the mix, it is kind of interesting to see how they try to live in peace under one roof. I know how that feels as I’ve lived in a townhouse with different people before when I was studying overseas and I’ll be frank with you, it was quite challenging trying to understand each person’s flaws and strengths and living with the flaws.

I guess the moral of the story is that if you’re boiling something on the stove and you don’t watch it closely, it will eventually boil over and make a mess in the kitchen which you’re not looking forward to cleaning up. If you’re already at loggerheads with someone and you have to go on a trip with that person, chances are something is going to flip and both of you will go for the jugular. So it’s good to keep a cool head on your shoulders and if you have to confront someone, do it wisely.

Although, it was to be expected that at some point, everyone would have to kiss and make up, forgive and forget, and move on with life. The Posts’ marriage was rocky right from the start but they managed to pull through. One way or another, someone will have to make a sacrifice and meet the other person halfway. Compromise. Ah yes, that’s the word.

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