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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
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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