Readers meet a kindred spirit on the opening page of Emma Straub’s winsome new novel when Jim Post worries about the contents of his suitcase: “Had he packed enough books?”
Yes, this is the sort of person you — or at least I — wouldn’t mind passing a fictional vacation with. The fact that he is disgraced when the novel opens, forced to retire from his job as a men’s magazine editor after an affair with a 23-year-old editorial assistant, dampens that sentiment only slightly.
Jim and Franny, a freelance food writer, are Upper West Side literati whose teenage daughter Sylvia is prone to babbling, when nervous, about which Brontë is most underrated and who compares her mother’s writing style to “Joan Didion, only with an appetite, or like Ruth Reichl, but with an attitude problem.”
The novel centers on a long-planned family vacation to Mallorca celebrating Sylvia’s high school graduation; the secondary celebration, of Jim and Franny’s 35th anniversary, is muted due to the circumstances.
Along for the trip are son Bobby, a struggling Miami real estate agent 10 years older than Sylvia; Carmen, Bobby’s “albatross of a girlfriend” who is more than 10 years his senior; Charles, an artist who is Franny’s best friend; and Lawrence, Charles’ baby-crazy husband.
“The idea had been to be together, everyone nicely trapped, with card games and wine and all the fixings of satisfying summers at their fingertips,” says the narrator, who gives us a peek inside everyone’s head.
Instead, the group coexists while dealing with personal crises that range from embarrassing (Sylvia’s sloppy drunken partying that ended up on Facebook) to momentous (Charles and Lawrence’s adoption plans) to financially devastating (Bobby’s six-figure debt) to personally ruinous (Jim’s affair).
While the characters’ days are mostly filled with humdrum vacation activities — with the exception of the hilarious, dramatic beach trip that injects some slapstick comedy — the plot is driven by the individual dramas and interactions between characters, who are perfectly sketched.
We love Franny because she loves to eat and cook, and she doesn’t mind that her body reflects that: “ . . . [i]t was true that Franny had gotten thicker in the last decade, but that was what happened unless you were a high-functioning psychotic.”
We love Lawrence because he gets away with being the catty outsider who thinks Carmen “looked like one of the Spice Girls after a decade out of the spotlight, slightly worse for wear.”
We do not love Bobby, who is kind of a jerk and an idiot. We even come to appreciate Carmen, whose grit serves as a reminder that the world of upper-middle-class Manhattanites is a bubble far removed from reality.
A few Mallorca locals and other tourists make appearances — all to comic effect — but the novel’s magic lies in watching a once close-knit family try to find its way back to each other.
The finest moment of the novel comes near the end, during a routine pancake breakfast. Straub, the author of the novel Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures and a short-story collection, infuses the scene with such wonderful nostalgia and hope. The vacation might be ending, but we’re reminded that the journey — sometimes painful, often joyful — continues.
Hannah Sampson is a Miami Herald staff writer.