Maria Semple’s praise for Emma Straub’s “The Vacationers” calls it witty and bighearted and promises to “leave you smiling for days.” After finishing, all I can think is how on earth did Maria Semple and I read the same book?
“The Vacationers” popped up in my google searches as being in the same vein as Semple’s “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?”, which I loved.
This was nothing like Bernadette. The characters were shallow and boring, as was the plot. This is the tale of characters going on a Spanish island vacation after the husband had an affair with a much younger coworker. They are joined by their teenage-angsty daughter, their worthless son and his girlfriend, whom everyone hates for no real reason except that she’s 10 years older than the son, plus their gay friends. I found a lot of the plot unbelievable (how do magazine writers afford a giant home in Manhattan? And how is an affair something that would make headlines? I kept thinking there was going to be some twist, something kinky or weird that would have made it newsworthy, but it was a pretty basic, boring affair).
Nothing really happens except the characters treat each other pretty horribly: The wife seems to be openly in love with her gay friend Charles (to the point of bathing with him in the room) and cares more about him than her husband; her husband later seems to “prove” his love for her by stalking her on a motorcycle; the daughter seems happiest whenever she’s mean to her mother; the son is just miserable. Carmen, the girlfriend, is the only character (except perhaps Charles’ partner Lawrence) who is worth liking: She helps out around the house, she tries to help her boyfriend with her problems and she keeps the secret of the husband’s affair. Yet, because of her age, and possibly because she’s Cuban American or the family doesn’t like the way they dress, everyone hates her, even making jokes about her drowning, and when she tries to empathize with the husband and confide that her parents had problems, he’s uncomfortable and just tries to think of ways to get away from her.
I gave “The Vacationers” two out of five stars on goodreads, in part because I did finish (though I kept going because I thought there’d be some great twist, which there wasn’t) and partly because I think this book shows that any aspiring writer who worries whether or not their work is good enough to be published can read this and realize that pretty much anything can be not only published, but also get glowing reviews.