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Old Family Laundry Gets Unpacked In 'The Vacationers'


Families go on vacation, but a change of scenery cannot change the challenges they have. Or in a way, can it? "The Vacationers" is Emma Straub's new novel, and you might see it soon opened on beaches all over America. The Post family goes on vacation to Mallorca, Spain. Franny and Jim are celebrating a milestone anniversary. Sylvia, their daughter, is graduating from high school. Then their son Bobby joins them, Franny's friend Charles and his husband, as old family laundry gets unpacked and hung up in the sun. Emma Straub, whose previous books include "Laura Lamont's Life In Pictures" and who was a staff writer for Rookie, joins us from our studios in New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

EMMA STRAUB: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: So tell us about this family, if you could, beginning with Jim and Franny.

STRAUB: Jim and Franny have been married for 35 years, and I would say they've had a good marriage. But something has happened recently when the book starts. And they're suddenly on some sort of shifting and uncomfortable ground, and not really sure if their marriage is going to last through this vacation.

SIMON: They share children, memories, history. Is what keeps people together sometimes what can also drive them apart?

STRAUB: Sure, I think so. I mean, I think that families are tricky organisms. And they're complicated and knowing each other secrets and sort of sensitive spots is what brings people closer together. But it also makes it really easy to get into an explosive argument, as all of us know from Thanksgiving tables and family vacations of our own.

SIMON: It begins with I never liked your mashed potatoes to I never liked your mother.

STRAUB: (Laughter) Exactly.

SIMON: Could - I'm very moved by your portrait of Franny in particular. I'm wondering if you could read a section.

STRAUB: I will be delighted. So, the section I'm going to read, is from very early in the book. Franny is just setting off on a grocery shopping trip. (Reading) She liked to think of herself as average size, though the averages had of course changed over time. Franny knew plenty of women who had chosen to prioritize the eternal youth of their bodies, and they were all miserable creatures. Their taught triceps unable to conceal their dissatisfaction with their empty stomachs and unfulfilling lives. Franny liked to eat and to feed people. And she wasn't embarrassed that her body displayed such proclivities. She'd gone to one horrible Overeater Anonymous meeting in her early 40s, in a stuffy room in the basement of a church. And the degree to which she recognized herself, and the other men and women sitting on the folding chairs, had scared her away for good. It might be a problem, but it was her problem, thank you very much.

SIMON: Now that paragraph made me recognize a lot of loved ones. Is it a good attitude, though?

STRAUB: You know, Franny has various issues that she sort of is wrestling with over the course of the book. And food really is what she turns to when she's having problems with her husband, with her children later on in the book. What she does, almost always is, start to cook.

SIMON: And let me ask about Jim. He's turned 60. And without giving too much away, he thinks he may have discovered a fountain of youth with someone else.

STRAUB: Yes. Jim has fallen into the trap that some people do, which is finding a very young person around the office and falling into bed with them instead of facing what it means to get older and to be in this several-decade-long marriage. And it makes quite a mess for him.

SIMON: And yet, he said he hasn't stopped loving Franny.

STRAUB: Yeah. I don't think the two are mutually exclusive. I think he knows that he's made a real error, and he wants to make it right.

SIMON: Sylvia, their daughter has graduate from high school, and will tell anybody that her parents are the worst.

STRAUB: (Laughter).

SIMON: Is this just a stage? Or...

STRAUB: I think it is a stage. You know, teenagers are still sponges. The way that small children pick things up and repeat them, I think teenagers do that too, but in a much more sort of sullen, sulky way. So Sylvia knows that her parents have been having real, very serious problems in their marriage. But she hasn't talked to them about it because I don't think people who are going through a divorce necessarily pull their teenagers aside and say, you know, your father and I really have been arguing a lot. You know, it's something you that just feel.

SIMON: These are real people in your mind, aren't they?

STRAUB: They are. They are. I've been writing about this family for a long time. I started writing a novel about them in 2005. And I finally figured out what it was that I wanted to show, and that it wasn't them in New York, which the previous drafts and stories had all been. It wasn't them at home. It was them, somewhere else, sort of marooned. You know, floating off in the distance, with only each other.

SIMON: Speaking as a reader. your characters can fret about the damndest things. I'm thinking there's a moment when Jim contemplates divorce, he wonders, horrors, if he might have to leave his ZIP Code on the upper West side of Manhattan. Is it hard sometimes to make folks with those kind of concerns appealing to enlist the interest of readers?

STRAUB: You know, obviously it's a little bit of a joke. But I do think that the idea of moving out of the home that you've shared with your wife after 35 years is a concern that would be shared by lots of readers. People have mentioned this to me, that they think that their problems might not be so universal, but I really think they are. You know, I think that yes, this family has a lot of privilege and has some money. But the problems really don't have much to do with that. The problems are in their marriage and in their relationships. And that can certainly happen to anyone no matter what ZIP code they live in.

SIMON: Emma Straub. Her new novel, "The Vacationers." Thanks so much for being with us.

STRAUB: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.