Top 10 holidays in fiction
From James Salter to Lorrie Moore and Patricia Highsmith, novelist Emma Straub is our guide for a tour of the best-imagined vacations
Wednesday 23 July 2014 13.58 BST
I've always liked taking my fictional characters on vacation. As in life, I think it shakes characters out of their routines, which in turn leads to more zippy interactions and conflicts and, yes, better sex.
Though the entirety of my new novel, The Vacationers, takes place on an American family's holiday in Mallorca, sometimes you only need a little slice of a trip within a larger book.
Here are some of my favorite getaways in fiction – they aren't all successful, of course, but a placid, happy trip rarely makes for compelling reading.
Between the ages of seven and 14, I spent every July at sleepaway camp. I didn't realise that I was mourning the absence of the perfect summer camp novel until Meg Wolitzer's latest novel came out last year. It is a kaleidoscopic portrait of a group of friends, starting one summer at camp and stretching out over the following several decades, proving that the choices we make in our youth, however insignificant they seem at the time, set the course for the rest of our lives.
Von Arnim takes a handful of odd British ladies (one young, one old, two in the middle) to Italy for a month in the sun. The setting is gorgeous – a large house with ample gardens – and the women are wonderfully prickly with each other, softening as the time passes, even as one turns out to be carrying on with another's husband.
For some, vacations are all about sex – that is certainly the case for Salter's couple, an American man and a French woman, on the go. They cavort (clothed, unclothed, in this position and that) and drink and talk, clearly loth to return to their daily lives. This book makes the 1960s in provincial France look like the place to go.
4. Paper Losses, from Bark by Lorrie Moore
In Paper Losses, one of the stories in Moore's latest collection, a divorcing couple travel to an island resort with their family. They argue and mishear each other, they attempt to flirt and get massages. Funny and awful, just like life.
Whitehead's teenage protagonist spends every summer in Sag Harbor, at the tip of New York's Long Island. He works at the ice cream parlour and reads horror novels. He fights with his parents, and chases his friends around town, always on the verge of missing something great. Unlike Wolitzer's book, which is about a teenager away from her parents and learning everything about herself, Whitehead's book is about a boy observing his family's failings over and over again.
How many of us forgo our own vacations in favour of attending friends' nuptials? Shipstead's first novel unfolds around a wedding on the coast of Maine. There are drunken aunts and slippery old men, sexy bridesmaids and gorgeous scenery. It's better than going to a real wedding, because in this case, you're not required to pay for your own transport to and fro, nor are you expected to bring a gift.
Also set on the rocky shores of chilly Maine, Courtney Sullivan's third novel follows a family getaway cabin through three generations of women. The landscape is described so lovingly that you'll curse your own ancestors for not thinking to purchase a similar parcel of land.
Because sociopaths like to take holidays too! Highsmith's much-loved villain heads to Italy in this novel, where he follows and then kills a high-born man he pretends to know from school. I don't know whether Facebook has made this sort of thing easier or more difficult. Easier, I fear. Watch out when someone claims to have taken English class with you in grade 10.
A zany and sometimes misleadingly goofy party of a book, The Dud Avocado is the story of American Sally Jay Goyce's trip to gay Paris (that's Par-eee) in the 1950s. The book was reprinted by the New York Review of Books, the introduction giving the book's darker corners more attention. Sally discovers that Paris can't solve all of one's problems, not even with copious amounts of champagne and pink-tinted hair.
Jennifer Egan's Pulitzer prize-winning novel-in-stories spends one chapter on an African safari. There are complicated family dynamics, irritating fellow tourists, and a proper animal attack: all the trappings of an excellent holiday.