June 20, 2014

‘The Vacationers’ exposes a well-off family’s undercurrents of secrets

On vacation on the island of Mallorca, family with much to savor struggles with undercurrents of secrets that make the trip memorable for readers.

“Families were nothing more than hope cast out in a wide net,” Emma Straub writes in “The Vacationers.”

For the Post clan, the family at the novel’s center, that hope grows dimmer by the day.

Straub’s latest book thrusts a cast composed of New York literati and art gallerists into the pressure cooker of a vacation home, proving that the market is, to my chagrin, apparently not yet saturated with domestic dramas about wealthy Manhattanites negotiating high-powered careers and marital strife.

Jim, the Post patriarch, is forced into early retirement from his job at a men’s magazine after a dalliance with a wispy young staffer barely older than his daughter.

His wife, Franny, a full-figured food writer (“like Joan Didion, only with an appetite”) isn’t sure if she can forgive him, but their prebooked vacation to Mallorca with friends and family forces them to slap a thin veneer over their splintered relationship.

Mounting tension mars what is ostensibly a celebratory trip: It’s Jim and Franny’s 35th wedding anniversary, and their daughter, Sylvia, has just graduated from high school.

Franny’s best friend, Charles, and his husband, Lawrence, join them in Spain and are forced into the role of reluctant peacemakers. But the couple has their own anxieties: They’re trying to adopt a baby and must be ready, at any moment, to answer the agency’s call.

The Post daughter, Sylvia, adds romance to the plot with a goal plucked from a teen movie: to lose her virginity by the end of the summer. Rounding out the clan is her older brother, Bobby, a Floridian real estate mogul-turned-gym rat, and his personal-trainer girlfriend, Carmen, an older, less privileged woman whom the Posts universally dislike.

Infidelities and insecurities bubble to the surface in the close confines of the vacation home, an ugly contrast to Mallorca’s idyllic scenery. Landlocked readers will feel transported by Straub’s glimmering place descriptions. The island is a sumptuous “layer cake,” full of “unfiltered sunshine and a breeze that promised you’d never be too warm for long.”

Straub balances a large cast by zipping in and out of different characters’ perspectives, never dwelling in one scene for long. It’s a narrative choice that mostly works, though the perspective pingpong can muddle a few voices.

The novel’s greatest strength is Straub’s playful prose, crackling with wit and the kind of good-natured snark that wouldn’t sound out of place in a Fiona Maazel novel. Her riffs on Franny are some of the novel’s most satisfying: “She did some Yogic breathing, the kind that Jim thought sounded like a sweaty Russian in a bathhouse.” Ditto her take on Joan, a dreamy local boy who tutors Sylvia in Spanish: “If sex had made a poster advertising its virtues, they might have put his face on it.”

Straub extends that comic treatment even to the crisis scenes, but readers may wish her wit and warmth had been applied to a less conventional, low-stakes plot. Infidelities and betrayals are punished almost supernaturally with jellyfish stings or a goose egg from a poorly aimed tennis racket. Real consequences — emotional ones — are mostly absent.

It’s a problem not uncommon for contemporary novels about the white and wealthy: For all of the time the Posts spend stewing about their problems, nothing seems all that dire.

Financial plights that would ruin your average Joe — say, being asked to bail out a family member’s six-figure debt — earn no greater consideration than a sigh and a resolution to cash out some stocks. The children know there’s nothing the family credit card can’t fix. And all seem blissfully unaware of their privilege, content to dwell in the comfortable, manufactured misery uniquely afforded to the rich.

Still, Straub draws her characters with enough charm and tenderness that we can’t help but like them in spite of themselves. Their problems may not be relatable, but their emotional lives are, and Straub has sharp insights into both conflicted empty nesters and teenage angst. Her physical descriptions are particularly astute, attuned to the way subtle gestures and tics reveal our hidden fears and desires.

The novel starts and ends on an airplane, which might also be the best place to read it.

Straub’s clear writing and comic characterization is perfect for a few hours of light entertainment, peppered with summery descriptions and surprising emotional warmth.

From its title to its pool-blue cover, “The Vacationers” seems destined to accompany travelers this summer, and as a beach read, it exceeds the mark: Straub’s novel is an uncomplicated confection told with literary flair, a pleasure you don’t have to feel guilty about.

The Vacationers, by Emma Straub (292 pages; Riverhead Books; $26.95)

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