Review: The Vacationers by Emma Straub

  • Publisher: Picador
  • Published: 5 June 2014
  • Pages: 304
  • ISBN: 978-1447262855
  • Amazon UK Amazon US Book Depository 
  • Copy supplied courtesy of Pan Macmillan and NetGalley
  • 3.5/5
A dysfunctional family of spoilt Manhattanites haul their physical and emotional baggage to an idyllic Spanish island for two weeks.

I’ll be straight up honest with you: I’m not a big fan of ‘beach reads’. I get very little out of them. But when I was sent a review copy of Emma Straub‘s latest I was looking forward to giving it a go, even if it did scream ‘beach bags and flip flops’. I wasn’t a huge fan of her previous novel Laura Lamont’s Life In Pictures as I hated the main character, but Straub’s scene setting could be exquisite and she had a feel for the era and surroundings. It would seem history has repeated itself with her latest offering.

From the beginning, we are presented with Sylvia; permanently bored, whiny, and unimpressed 18 yr old college grad, who you can just see rolling her eyes. She obviously loves the parents she’s so clearly put out by (you know…’cos they exist..and duh) but her patience is wearing thin with her mother Franny and her bond with her father Jim is weakening. As hinted at early on in the novel, Sylvia’s had a rough time of late, so she’ll tolerate them both for the duration of the holiday and use it to get her head together before starting college. Oh, and lose her virginity.

Although she’s a pain, you can sympathise with Sylvia (only a little mind you), as her mother is even worse. Controlling, bossy, determined, and exuberant to the point where all I could see was Edina Monsoon from Ab Fab. In fact, swap fashion for food and you’re almost there – especially later on when Franny spots an old tennis star she used to have a crush on. Franny and Jim’s relationship is on seriously rough ground. We can tell this as Franny is constantly cross and Jim is forever guilty. Naturally, we get to the bottom of it all, but it takes several detours before we do.

At the airport, we’re introduced to the other players in this ‘Allen-esque’ scenario: Charles – long time best friend of Franny (and continual pain in Jim’s butt) and his husband Lawrence; Bobby, Sylvia’s much older brother, and his girlfriend, the much older Carmen. Nobody shines here – they all have their awful moments and the comeuppance that some experience is well-deserved – and I do feel that Straub wants the reader to like her creations, but situations such as the family’s behaviour towards Carmen makes that very difficult. I get the feeling that they’d never get their just desserts for that and just carry on blindly. We soon discover that each partnership has secrets that are bubbling under the surface, just waiting to (predictably) come screaming out at some point in the next two weeks.

And that was the problem. I wasn’t expecting plotting on a par with ‘The Luminaries’ but the situations were so predictable it was just a case of waiting for that particular event to occur. From the half-way point I just knew it would be neatly tied up by the end.

What made getting to that end a joy, and tempered my feelings towards the characters, was Straub’s ability to set the scene. Her descriptive prose is truly evocative, placing you right there in the moment. I was on that hot, suffocating New York side-walk, I was on that awkward plane journey, and I was driving around that beautiful island.

I just wish that it was with someone else.







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