One Christmas holiday, I spent a few days in a beachside house with my siblings and their children. On his maiden voyage with the Wii, my little nephew accidentally sent his untethered remote control careening from his hand, end over end, toward the obscenely large television. The plasma screen splintered, and a hissing, steaming ooze bubbled forth. Soon a maintenance team in hazmat suits arrived, encased the television in an immense plastic bag (manufactured by a company familiar with family vacations) and departed, shaking their heads sadly, but not unsympathetically.
Ask not for whom the foul, oozing liquid
bubbles—it bubbles for thee.
What can we say about family vacations? Ask not for whom the foul oozing, liquid bubbles—it bubbles for thee. That untouchable substance is everyone’s unmet expectations, cherished grudges, and meticulously recorded slights. If only the men in suits would show up to bag up all our issues and summarily cart them away. Hand me a bill for $567.00—my brother’s total—if that’s all it takes to wrap up and dispose of my accumulated baggage! But when the door closed behind the hazmat team, we were all still there together: my nephew crying, my sister-in-law down with mastitis, my youngest daughter throwing up, and the rest of us disgruntled and coming down with the flu. God bless us, every one!
We all should know family vacations are a recipe for bubbling toxic disaster, but few of us can resist their pull. And the talented Emma Straub couldn’t resist writing about one—fortunately for us. In The Vacationers, The Post family enters a tense minefield of trouble when they leave New York for two weeks in Mallorca with guilt, anger, and longing in tow. Straub is a gentle unfolder of her characters, for whom she has an evident, reassuring affection, even at their most short-sighted and selfish. I delighted in her ability to create such fully realized characters in the confines of a relatively short novel.
I was reminded that, in the right environment, a great deal can be revealed about people in a brief period—in good fiction, at least. Take a group and drop them into the pressure cooker of a holiday with all its forced fun and outsize expectations and then see what they’re all made of. In this case, they aren’t all made of sugar and spice, but they emerge intact, likeable and flawed but worthy of our affection and each others’. Sound like anyone you are related to?
If you select The Vacationers for your book-group discussion, expect to hear plenty of family-vacation horror stories—just don’t let them distract you from talking about this excellent book!