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Onyx reviews: The Vacationers by Emma Straub

Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 04/24/2014

Two weeks on the tropical island of Mallorca off the coast of Spain sounds like heaven, but the Post family is in a shambles from the outset, so cramming seven people in a house on the outskirts of a small town leaves the vacationers little to do but confront their issues, which are legion.

The biggest crack in the family came recently: Jim confessed to his wife of thirty-five years, Franny, that he had an affair with a twenty-three-year-old intern at the magazine where he has worked all of his life. As a result, he has been forced into early retirement. Franny, who travels around the world eating food and writing about it, still hasn't decided if she's going to forgive her wandering spouse or initiate divorce proceedings. Whatever her decision, Jim is in the doghouse during this "vacation," trying to figure out whether to make himself scarce or constantly apologetic. 

The Posts have two children. Because the youngest, Sylvia, still lives at home, she's aware of the tensions between her parents and even has an inkling of the cause. However, she's more concerned about a recent incident that embarrassed her on social media. She has two main goals for her near future: lose her virginity and reinvent herself when she goes to university in the fall. 

Her brother, Bobby, is ten years older and something of a disappointment to his snobbish parents. The Posts live in a ritzy ZIP code in Manhattan and hoped Bobby would become more than a real estate agent in Florida. They also don't approve of his long-time partner, Carmen, who is over ten years his senior, unlikely to provide grandchildren, and works as a personal trainer at a health club. There disdain for Carmen is unwarranted—despite the fact that she spends a lot of time working on her body and conjuring up protein shakes, she's a good person, probably better than Bobby deserves. Bobby has no inkling that there's anything wrong with his parents' marriage: he has his own issues to deal with, problems he hopes his parents will help him with, if he can just find the right moment to broach the subject.

Rounding out the group is another couple, Lawrence and Charles. Charles has been friends with Franny for most of her life, and when the two of them are together they behave like teenagers, giggling and ignoring their significant others. Lawrence is an accountant in the film industry and has to keep up with his email via the villa's shoddy WiFi. He and Charles are also trying to adopt a child, so he's constantly checking for messages on that front. It's not an ideal time to be thousands of miles from home and more or less out of contact with the world.

Franny is the organizer, the orchestrator of everyone's enjoyment. She makes all the meals, begrudgingly allowing others to assist, and arranges day outings to sites of local interest. She has also set up Spanish lessons for Sylvia, even though her daughter does not seem to require much tutelage. The young man who shows up (quite unexpectedly on the first day) is named Joan, and Sylvia quickly identifies him as a possible candidate to fulfill one of her two goals.

The novel is told, one chapter per day, from multiple viewpoints, often in the same scene. It's true that there is no central figure in the story (although Franny is a piece of work who seems to think the world revolves around her), so this approach levels the playing field, but it might have been interesting to see everything through one set of eyes, Sylvia's for example. Despite her angst, she's one of the most balanced characters in the book and her perspective on the others is informative, not only for herself but for the reader as well.

Other than Sylvia, the Posts in general are not terribly likable. Jim, of course, is easy to brand as the villain of the piece since his actions have created much of the tension, so he's being timid and tenuous, trying to figure out what his future will look like now that no other magazine will ever hire him and he's not sure where he'll be living (status seems important to him). Franny, at least "on vacation" Franny, is a bit much. She flirts with Joan and with a tennis instructor she hooks up with on a whim, and her ever-so-close friendship with Charles is cloying. Bobby is morose and flighty, unwilling to commit to anything, much to Carmen's dismay.

It's a beautiful, idyllic setting, and readers will likely add Mallorca to their wish list of places to vacation, hopefully under better circumstances than the Posts'. There is lots of food description and nods to local artist, including Miró (who's name is also Joan), who adopted the island as his home. 

At the end of two weeks, everyone is ready to get back home, though. Some conflicts have been resolved, others have manifested during the fortnight abroad, but the real world beckons. Vacation time is a kind of suspended animation, and the individuals who share this splendid villa can only move forward once they leave it.

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