The Vacationers, by Emma Straub


The Post family is going on a long-planned vacation to Mallorca. Jim and Franny originally meant the trip to be a celebration of their thirty-fifth anniversary, but given the recent tensions, they are calling it a last family vacation before Sylvia heads off to college. Sylvia’s older brother, Bobby, and his even older girlfriend, Carmen, are invited, as well as Franny’s best friend, Charles, and his husband, Lawrence.

On this blog my intention is to discuss books from a writer’s point of view, that is, describing what I can learn about this craft of wordsmithing by examining what works and doesn’t work in a particular book, looking at what tools and techniques the author uses. If my response to a book is overwhelmingly negative, I normally do not discuss it here. Today, though, I am making an exception. I can learn much from even a poorly crafted book.

I’ve mentioned the way one of my book clubs operates. In another book club, we select all of the year’s books at one meeting. We discuss a number of proposed books and then each of us selects one book. While there are some authors who are consistent favorites, this process has given us a fair number of books most of us might never have read, plus a few stinkers.

I don’t recall who chose this one, but I believe the motivation was to include something light to balance our heavier choices. The glowing cover blurbs promising wisdom and insight and true-to-life characters also swayed her choice.

Unfortunately, as so often happens with books that trumpet on the cover that they are New York Times bestsellers, this novel does not live up to its promise. Sure, the prose is smooth and uncomplicated, as you would expect from a book touted as a beach read. And Straub conveys the Mallorcan setting beautifully—we are ready to book our trips!—including some expected references such as to a slightly disguised Rafael Nadal. Although the plot is predictable, this too is not unusual for a beach read.

Where Straub goes wrong is with her characters. One book club member said it was as though the author went down a checklist of stereotypes: middle-aged man having an affair with a “girl” near his daughter’s age: check; woman who shows love by feeding people and her boho credentials by having a gay best friend: check; adolescent girl discovering her sexuality: check; grown son who is still emotionally a child: check; girlfriend who hangs on hoping Peter Pan will grow up: check; a couple trying to adopt a baby, one in love with the idea, the other not so much: check.

By the end of the book we don’t know any more about these characters than these masks. One technique that would have helped Straub go beyond the superficial would have been choosing a different point of view. She hops from one person’s head to another constantly, even in the same scene, never alighting for long enough to examine any layers of complexity. If Straub had chosen to stay with one character’s point of view throughout the story, at least she would have been forced to discover more about that character.

As I’ve said before, the best fiction opens our minds and our hearts and enables us to see the world from inside someone else’s skin. To make this work, the writer has to give us characters in all their contradictions and convoluted motives. Such rich characters will drive a story that is anything but predictable and, yes, possibly convey some of the promised wisdom.

There is a place for novels that are essentially fluff. We all agreed that there are times when we want the distraction of a such a book; for example, one person who enjoyed the book read it at two in the morning when she couldn’t get back to sleep. However, as another person said, there is good fluff and bad fluff.

What book have you read that you’d call “good fluff”?

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