Book review: ‘The Vacationers’ by Emma Straub

The VacationersA summer getaway to a friend’s swanky pad in lush, fragrant Spain seems like a perfect opportunity for the Posts to reconnect. The family unveils secrets and struggles to move past old hurts to emerge a stronger group after two weeks in the Spanish sun.

Franny and Jim are ostensibly there to celebrate their 35th wedding anniversary, but they seem as distant and disconnected as a couple can be. Their children — Sylvia, a spirited young woman, and Bobby, her struggling brother — are there largely under duress, especially as Bobby drags his older girlfriend Carmen along for the ride.

Emma Straub’s The Vacationers is one long, drawn-out drama between dueling spouses and their grown or nearly-grown children. Its praises have been sung by countless media outlets as being the perfect addition to your beach bag, and the Washington Post basically wanted to make out with it. I read that review twice wondering if I’d gone temporarily insane or read an entirely different book, and . . . nope. Same book.

Just a vastly different reaction.

Though smart, irreverent and well-written, I found The Vacationers exceptionally tedious. Depressing. Sad. Basically, it was a bummer — and nothing like I anticipated. Certainly not like my beloved Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures, Straub’s 2012 work, which was sweeping and atmospheric and lovely.

This was boring. Just: dull.

For me, the book failed mostly due to its unlikeable characters. Franny is a tyrant, wanting to control her world and family and vacation to the point of lunacy. I mean, I got it; I understood why she’d desperately want to feel some sense of power in light of everything happening within her marriage. It made perfect sense. But it certainly wasn’t fun to read about.

Of everyone, I felt the most for Jim — a man haunted and crucified by one incredibly bad decision. I mean, the guy screwed up big time; that’s undeniable. And the coldness between he and Franny seemed realistic and heartbreaking. I felt for both sides, absolutely, but Jim’s suffering was unbearable to watch — rubbernecking at the scene of a tragic accident. I couldn’t wait to get past it.

Oh, there are some tender moments — and Straub is certainly a talented writer. She’s insightful, polished, intuitive; her novels are deceptively easy to read. You’ll sit down for a tiny rest thinking you’ll read just one chapter, and suddenly it’s dark and your spouse is begging you to turn out the light. I never considered abandoning this one, even as I began to roll my eyes. I still cared . . . just not enough.

For as much as I failed to connect with The Vacationers, I appreciated Straub’s way with words and would pick up a future novel. But I didn’t feel guilty about tucking this one into a hotel drawer during my California vacation in May. Hopefully a traveler passing through Three Rivers will have better luck with it than I did . . .

2 out of 5!

ISBN: 1594488452 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor website
Review copy provided by publisher

Book review: ‘Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures’ by Emma Straub

Laura Lamont's Life in PicturesGrowing up in her family’s homegrown theater in beautiful Door County, Wisconsin, Elsa Emerson wants nothing more than to bathe in the spotlight of her older sister. Beautiful Hildy is enigmatic, energizing, lovely — all attributes young Elsa can’t help but admire. When actors descend on the family farm each summer, Elsa admires the one-of-a-kind plays they perform — though the theater doesn’t draw her like it does Hildy.

After a family tragedy levels the Emersons, Elsa gets her first taste of the stage. Drawn in by the warmth of attention, Elsa makes an impulsive decision to marry a traveling actor and leave for Los Angeles. Elsa and Gordon have two daughters in short order — and while Gordon’s star ascends, Elsa’s dream of fame is sidelined by the babies. She struggles to be content with her new role in life, but can’t shake the feeling of more — and quietly begins to ready herself for another crack at acting. After a studio executive rechristens her Laura Lamont, Elsa/Laura takes her first tentative steps into Hollywood — and never quite knows if she’s rising or falling.

Spanning decades, Emma Straub’s Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures is part family saga, part cautionary tale, part love story. Straub’s vivid language, pointed descriptions and phenomenal pacing drew me into Laura’s world and kept me captive. Though the book has a melancholic tone, I never felt desperately sad walking with Laura — and though I could have easily felt disconnected from her lifestyle, Straub’s lovely descriptions of golden-age Hollywood reminded me of Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins. I was engrossed.

Elsa’s story begins in the 1920s, and I loved the early descriptions of Door County. Wisconsin is wholly unfamiliar to me — and I enjoyed seeing the Emersons’ lives through Elsa’s lens. As the story shifts into the 1940s and beyond, showcasing Elsa/Laura’s life as a young mother and aspiring star, I sympathized with her attempts to create an identity beyond the young milkmaid she’d always been — though Elsa’s isn’t an identity easily shed.

Laura’s tale doesn’t follow a predictable arc. Eventually she earns top accolades for a pivotal role, but Straub doesn’t push Laura to the tippy-top of Hollywood only to watch her fall. It was wonderful to read a story without any real hint of where it was going, and I appreciated the twists. Though I got angry — really angry — by some of the unfair tragedies, this novel stayed one step ahead of depressing. A few events leveled me, and it’s been a while since I physically gasped while reading . . . but those are the literary moments that keep me coming back for more. Straub had me in the palm of her hand.

While some characters felt very two-dimensional, very stock, I feel that was the intention. Many of the rowdy, fake L.A. girls were just that: girls. Having come from the north, Laura always seemed a step above them — and beyond their simpering. I liked that Laura wasn’t weighed down by typical celebrity problems . . . especially when she had so many of her own issues at home. My only regret is that we didn’t learn more about Josephine, Laura’s eldest sister — a young woman with plenty of secrets and tragedies born alone. She could have a novel herself.

If you’re seeking a salacious story full of Hollywood gossip, Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures ain’t it. It’s very much the introspective, quiet journey of one small-town woman battling grief, ambition and hope in equal measure. I really loved it, was mesmerized by it. Lovers of literary fiction will find much to absorb in Straub’s moving depiction of the many hats we wear throughout our lives — and the pink glow of hope that binds us all.

4.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 1594488452 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor website
Review copy provided by LibraryThing Early Reviewers
in exchange for my honest thoughts