There are plot-driven novels that read like action movies, zinging from one exotic locale to the next, with bullets flying and cars exploding to a pulse-pounding soundtrack. These are the books you stay up past your bedtime to finish, knowing you can't possibly get through your day tomorrow without knowing what happens next.
Then there are books like The Vacationers, so minutely focused on character that the plot becomes, if not irrelevant, then simply an efficient vehicle for the next inner revelation or sudden change of heart. You could ask what happens in a book like this, but the answer would be “Nothing. And everything.”
Because basically what happens is that a group of family and friends go on vacation together and, to borrow a tagline from the MTV of my youth, they stop being polite and start getting real.
Everyone on the trip has a secret, it seems. Franny and Jim Post, the Manhattan couple who organized the trip to Mallorca, are at odds over an affair Jim had with an intern, but they're trying to fight quietly so their grown son Bobby won't find out. Bobby has troubles of his own, in particular a stale relationship with Carmen, a personal trainer ten years his senior, and a mountain of debt from an ill-advised investment. Bobby's younger sister Sylvia is heading off to college in the fall, with the goals of losing her virginity and totally reinventing herself before orientation. Completing the cast are Charles, Franny's longtime best friend and confidant, and his husband Lawrence. They have been waiting to adopt a baby, but their doubts balloon as they witness the messy implosion of the Posts' lives.
As I read, I found myself rooting for all the characters despite their obvious flaws. I can certainly see how some readers might find them unlikable, but I'm of the opinion that most people are unlikable a significant amount of the time, so I can enjoy a book just fine even if I would never want to get coffee with the people in it. Straub's characters are better than likable—they're interesting and dynamic and repentant and hopeful.
The Vacationers would make a great gift this holiday season for anyone who has struggled to navigate the murky waters of family relations.