By Emma Straub
Riverhead. 292 pp. $26.95
SUMMER HOUSE WITH SWIMMING POOL
By Herman Koch
Translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett
Hogarth. 387 pp. $24
Plotting your summer vacation is a task freighted with weighty decisions, and the weightiest things you’ll pack are books. Should you bear down or let yourself go? Is this the summer you finally tackle “Anna Karenina”? Or is it time to stop lugging around Thomas Piketty’s “Capital” and put something in the suitcase that you might actually read — something with embossed, reflective type on the cover?
¶ Go ahead, you’re on vacation: No one in Cancun cares that you’re loving the Divergent trilogy. ¶ But even if the hottest thing you’ll experience this summer is Washington weather, that’s no reason to stay home. Consider the vicarious thrill of reading about how other people get away, how they manage the demands of scheduled frivolity, how they cram friends and family into a small space for a few days of artificial intimacy. This month offers two first-class literary voyages to the Mediterranean with no chance of losing your luggage. One novel is light, the other dark — a holiday of reading that will make even your most disastrous vacation seem like a day at the beach.
Emma Straub’s “The Vacationers” is so much fun that I’d be willing to housesit her cat. A romantic comedy that evokes the classics, the story opens at the start of the Post family’s much-anticipated two-week trip to Spain. “The Posts hadn’t vacationed in years,” Straub tells us, “not like this.” Franny Post, the all-controlling wife and mother, “the maypole around which the rest of the world had to dance and twirl,” has spent months planning every detail, which, of course, guarantees a tour of frustration. “The Posts were masters of self-delusion,” and it doesn’t help that everyone going along is harboring some unspeakable secret: Franny’s 60-year-old husband didn’t retire; he was fired for having sex with an intern — just what you want to learn before a European getaway to celebrate your 35th wedding anniversary. Meanwhile, Franny’s hot-shot son is up to his pecs in unsold muscle powder and debt. And her usually sensible daughter has drawn up a list of Things to Do Before College that concludes with “Lose virginity.”
As soon as the Posts cross the Atlantic, Straub squeezes them into awkward situations designed to reveal more than your old high school bathing suit. Franny has invited along her oldest friend, a gay man and his husband, who quietly resents the way Franny makes him feel invisible. And Franny’s son has brought along his much-too-old girlfriend, a fitness fanatic who looks down on the flabby Posts just as much as they look down on her. When a hunky Spanish tutor enters the mix, Straub has all the ingredients for a delicious comedy of hurt feelings and leaping hearts.
Set down on the idyllic island of Majorca in the Mediterranean Sea, the Posts confront that universal complaint of vacationing families everywhere: There is nothing to do but get on one another’s nerves. Still, that’s plenty of activity for Straub to spin one beguiling scene after another, exposing spots of annoyance slathered with sunscreen. Much of the comedy springs from the tension between being required to have the best time in the world and wanting to stab someone with an ice pick.
It’s not easy to keep a whole novel lazily floating around the pool like this, but Straub manages it by shifting from one character to another, conveying each guest’s private thoughts — and, fortunately, these guests tend to think in an uninterrupted series of wry truisms. “What were parents anyway,” Franny’s daughter asks, “except two people who had once thought they were the smartest people in the world?” Contemplating her adulterous husband, Franny admits, “Like most things, sex got better with age until one hit a certain plateau, and then it was like breakfast, unlikely to change unless one ran out of milk and was forced to improvise.”
Before this summer vacation is over, hearts will break, fists will fly, and too much olive oil will flow. But for all the Posts’ irritation with one another on sunny Majorca, in the end, it’s not the heat, it’s the humility. Straub knows that “families were nothing more than hope cast out in a wide net, everyone wanting only the best.” In these pages — so funny, so wise and, yes, even so sweet — she’s created the best feel-good story of the summer.
Are we there yet?
Of course, different vacationers want different amenities from their novels. Some order up the equivalent of a hot stone massage; others might enjoy an acid facial peel. Which brings us to Herman Koch’s caustic new novel, “Summer House With Swimming Pool.” Last year, this bestselling Dutch novelist published “The Dinner,” about two warring couples at an Amsterdam restaurant. This year, he delivers a more expansive but even more poisonous novel about rivals vacationing in the Mediterranean.
No matter how cheaply you travel, no hotel room will ever feel as cramped and sordid as the mind of this narrator, Dr. Marc Schlosser. He boasts, “I’m more charming than most men,” but that’s true only if most men are sociopaths, and Sam Garrett’s slightly stilted translation only adds to the reptilian tone of the doctor’s thoughts.
By freely prescribing painkillers, Schlosser has developed a lucrative practice among entertainment celebrities, all of whom disgust him. Disgust, in fact, is this novel’s terminal condition. Filled with clammy rage, Schlosser finds his patients’ bodies abhorrent; he takes perverse relish in mocking their pale buttocks, their enlarged prostates, their bleeding gums: “I look, but the way you might look at a dead animal in the road.” He subtly encourages the depressives to kill themselves. He fantasizes about pricking them with hepatitis A or aggravating cancerous growths with sloppy biopsies.
Warning: Do not read this book within three weeks of any medical appointment.
The story begins when the widow of the late movie star Ralph Meier bursts into Schlosser’s office and accuses him of malpractice. Schlosser doesn’t deny the accusation; instead, he takes us into his confidence and describes the vacation he and his family took with the Meiers the previous summer. From the start, it’s a trip laced with sexual tension, equal parts adultery and pedophilia. Ralph Meier is a large, lecherous man who licks his lips while staring at Schlosser’s wife. He horses around the pool naked with Schlosser’s two young daughters. Schlosser fights back, not by leaving but by coming on to Ralph’s wife.
I couldn’t stop reading this, but I can’t remember the last time a book made me want to crawl out of my own skin. Chapter by chapter, it is shockingly cynical and infected with a strain of humor so toxic that it should come with a bottle of Purell. Just when you feel you’ve got to turn away, the temperature of this dark sex comedy spikes with an act of violence that would inspire any normal person to call the police. Instead, our narrator’s anger quietly metastasizes.
Through all this, we hear Schlosser’s doubt-free commentary, complete with his grotesque declarations: “All men feel drawn to young girls” “A half-rape — women always like that. All women.” “A homosexual is nothing more than a walking contraceptive.” Wholly candid about his cynical manipulation of others, he’s someone who might treat you at the Patricia Highsmith HMO. You wouldn’t want to vacation with this monster — or sit on his cold examining table, but seeing him splayed out here on Koch’s pages is ghoulishly fascinating.
Charles is the editor of Book World. He reviews books every Wednesday in Style. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.