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: ‘The Last Little Blue Envelope’ by Maureen Johnson

It’s been months since Ginny Blackstone left Greece without the final of a series of envelopes from her beloved Aunt Peg — a collection of instructions that took her on a cross-European adventure and got her break out of her timid shell. While carrying out the last of Peg’s wishes, Ginny’s bag was stolen . . . and the last envelope was gone with it.

Back in the U.S., Ginny receives mysterious word that someone has discovered her bag — and Peg’s instructions. Relieved, scared and excited, Ginny leaves for London in the hope that she’ll be able to finish the project she started. But returning to England and meeting Oliver, the new keeper of the envelopes, does nothing but reopen old wounds. Coupled with discovering that Keith, the enigmatic and handsome actor she met on her first tour, is still in London — but not still single — Ginny is quickly realizing her life could get out of control.

But she’s on a mission — and has a job to finish. It might take most of her money and a bit of her sanity, but it’s time to take the plunge.

Maureen Johnson’s The Last Little Blue Envelope, sequel to her madcap adventure 13 Little Blue Envelopes, is an international romp I enjoyed even more than the first book. For all her traveling and bravado, Ginny still seems meek — but it’s the appearance of Oliver, a brooding Brit with an agenda, that really spices up the story.

The strength of this book — of all the Johnson books I’ve read — is her cutting sense of humor. The wit isn’t as overt in The Last Little Blue Envelope as it is on Twitter, perhaps, but Johnson has a talent for creating surreal situations that enchant readers and draw them heavily into a story. The pacing was brisk and exciting, and I couldn’t help but feel like something crazy was going to happen at any minute.

Being obsessed with travel, the Envelope books were both fascinating reads for me. Ginny’s adventures this go ’round take her to Paris, Amsterdam, Dublin, London and Wales, and reading about Ireland was a warm, refreshing change of pace. I did a double take after reading that Richard, Ginny’s pseudo-uncle, lives in Islington; Ginny took the Angel tube stop to reach his home. In April, I stayed at a hotel just blocks from there and used the Angel station as our “home base” on the trip. It was exciting to see it in print and immediately have a mental picture to accompany it.

I loved the romantic tension between Oliver, Ginny and Keith — not all together, of course — and thought Johnson did well to make Oliver so different from the previous object of Ginny’s affection. You want to dislike Oliver — and distrust him — but Keith somehow comes out looking like a bigger prat. I was rooting for Oliver and Ginny almost from the beginning.

And that wasn’t hard to do. The book isn’t terribly unpredictable, as it were; in fact, I could spot the ending early on. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t still fun meandering Amsterdam’s canals and Paris’ cafes with this random assortment of characters, and I finished this book in two sittings. A fun, diverting read — especially for the armchair traveler.

4 out of 5!

ISBN: 0061976792 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Personal copy purchased by Meg