I thoroughly enjoyed Straub’s debut novel, Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures, and feel we should gloss over the embarrassingly long time it took me to clock that she is daughter of Peter Straub. So when The Vacationers came along and seemed to be setting itself up to be everything Seating Arrangements should have been but wasn’t, I was sold. The blurb tells you it’s “an irresistible, deftly observed novel about the secrets, joys, and jealousies that rise to the surface over the course of an American family’s two-week stay in Mallorca” and for once, it doesn’t oversell things.
The Post’s are the family in question. Franny and Jim are marking their 35th wedding anniversary by taking their extended family to a sprawling Mallorcan villa. I say marking rather than celebrating because Jim has just been fired from the magazine where he’s worked forever, for screwing the very young intern. Their youngest daughter, Sylvia, just graduated high school and is headed to college, but she’s eager to arrive there unburdened by her virginity, so it’s lucky her fussy mother has arranged a tutor to give her Spanish lessons, and said tutor is young and HOT. Her older brother Bobby, who fled to Florida from his New York upbringing, is there with his much older personal trainer girlfriend Carmen. Bobby has issues which will naturally come to the fore as well. Then we have Frannie’s best friend Charles and his husband Lawrence, along for the ride even though they’re in the midst of trying to adopt a baby.
With this many characters driving the story, with that much baggage, Straub doesn’t really need a plot. Each chapter covers one day of the holiday as tensions rise and fall, secrets are uncovered, tennis legends are harassed, children are embarrassed and so on. The writing is pin sharp, the characterisation flawless. When Frannie thinks of her future unfolding, she notes that “she was six years away from a senior discount at the movies. Six years of looking at Jim in the kitchen and wanting to plunge an ice pick in between his eyes”. And Straub sure has a way with words, when Jim grossly reminisces about sex with the intern which caused his downfall we get “he’d been surprised the first time he’d reached his hand inside her skirt and felt her pussy, waxed and cool, as smooth as a hotel pillowcase”. I’m not ashamed to say I laughed out loud at that particular simile.
If you want a book that has a big plot and a lot of forward motion with a neat ending, this is not the book for you. If you want to read a character driven novel with some richly drawn people being delightfully awful to themselves and others, this is the book for you. Unlike others of its kind, Straub manages to balance making them unlikeable without making you hate them. The Posts and their friends delighted, disgusted and fascinated me, but they never bored or offended me. Good stuff.