Jennifer Weiner on bad family vacations in three good novels

June 5, 2012

Beach reads, airplane books, page-turners . . . call them what you will, but know that, at this very moment, some tattooed hipster is curling his or her pierced lip at any book that arrives with a whiff of suntan lotion and looks like fun. The implicit critique is that there’s something disreputable about a book that doesn’t send you running for the dictionary or offer sweeping pronouncements about The Way We Live Now; a book that promises enjoyable reading, engaging characters, a brisk plot — “mere entertainment.” But isn’t escape what we’re looking for from fiction, especially while we’re trying to snatch a few moments’ peace in the glare and the sand and the endless cries of “Mommy, watch me!” (followed, immediately, by “You’re not watching!”)? Summer vacations cry out for the take-me-somewhere-else that a great page-turner can provide. And what escape could be better than reading about someone else’s escape gone wrong? Here are three of my favorite novels that center on, or feature, disastrous vacations.

TROUBLE, by Kate Christensen (Anchor; paperback, $15). Plenty of long-married mothers have entertained the fantasy of getting up from their settled lives and just walking away. “Trouble” begins when Josie Dorvillier, attending a Christmas party at her college roommate’s apartment, glimpses her reflection in a mirror. “I raised my wineglass; she raised hers along with me. It was then, in that instant, that I knew that my marriage was over. . . . I had to leave Anthony.” In scenes that feel more like science fiction than literary fiction, she does just that, picking up a stranger in a bar, then telling her husband and teenage daughter that she’s leaving home (both react with surprising equanimity, even cooking her dinner as she’s on her way out the door), and flying down to Mexico City. There she joins Raquel Dominguez, the third member of her college triumvirate, a rock star caught in the teeth of Internet gossip after sleeping with a much-younger actor who has a pregnant girlfriend. Raquel is exotic and impulsive, with swagger to spare as she opens Josie’s eyes to the exotic possibilities of the road less traveled and the men you meet along the way. “Trouble” is so vividly written that you can taste the spicy sangrito and feel the stiff mattress in the cheap hotel where Raquel is hiding out. Critics seem to have regarded “Trouble” as a minor work, reserving their highest praise for the Christensen books that feature male protagonists. But I loved it, and, if you can suspend disbelief and fly off to Mexico with Josie, you’re in for an unforgettable ride.

AMERICAN WIFE, by Curtis Sittenfeld (Random House; paperback, $15). The wife in question is Alice Blackwell, a Laura Bush stand-in whose laughing, crass, party-boy spouse somehow ends up in the White House. One of its memorable set-pieces involves Alice’s first visit to her future husband’s family compound: a sprawling main house, four cottages and a single bathroom — all part of a lakefront community in Wisconsin where the 1 percent plays at poverty. “Oh, but how they loved their one toilet, how they loved their faded furniture and mossy, rickety dock, their chipped saucers and tarnished picture frames and hard mattresses,” Alice observes. “They loved this false, selective form of roughing it, and their own ease with its conventions, and a visitor’s potential unease.” Sittenfeld nails the details of what the rich eat and drink and wear, and the silent-but-deadly games a new fiancee plays with her future mother-in-law over cocktail hour on the porch. The reader leaves those pages knowing that level-headed Alice’s life is only going to feel less and less familiar as her marriage proceeds.


Jennifer Weiner suggests good vacation reading for this summer. (Edyta Linek)

BODY, by Harry Crews (Simon & Schuster). Shereel Dupont wants to win the Miss Universe bodybuilding competition, the prize she’s been working for years to attain. Things are looking good . . . but then her family comes to the ritzy Florida resort where the competition’s being held to cheer her on and enjoy a free vacation. Also in attendance: Shereel’s formidable competition, Marvella Washington; her sisters Starvella, Shavella, Jabella and Vanella; a bulimic bodybuilder named Billy Bat; and Shereel’s boyfriend Nail Head, a Vietnam veteran with a chip on his shoulder, a knife in his boot and a horsefly tattooed somewhere intimate. Put them together, and you’ve got a rollicking, romantic, finally heartbreaking story about the secret world of bodybuilding, the inner workings of a family and the ultimate price of victory. Crews died earlier this year, and this novel has fallen out of print, but if you’ve never tasted his particular brand of Southern comfort, search for a copy of “Body” online. It’s the perfect place to start.

Weiner is a novelist who lives in Philadelphia.

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