Jul 14 2010

Anxious Vacations

Naomi Fry


Fire Island Beach by Sanford Robinson Gifford


As we hunch over computers in airless office cubicles, many of us wish we could take a break from our daily routine. But vacationing can be an anxious endeavor in its own right. The following books begin with pleasant holidays, but end up delivering something darker and more complex. Or as the perennially grand-touring Miss Lavish muses while strolling the alleys of Florence in E. M. Forster's A Room with a View: "How delightfully warm! But a wind down the side streets cut like a knife, didn't it?"

Forgetting Elena by Edmund White

White's beautifully written first novel, full of precisely observed details, reimagines the Fire Island summer share as a polite form of hell. The incessant policing—of both self and other—that typifies the group vacation is rendered here in a detached, almost anthropological tone, which only partly masks the narrator's mounting social and existential dread.

The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith

In Highsmith's early novel of lesbian love (written under the pen name Claire Morgan), young, awkward Therese falls for cool blond divorcée Carol, and the two embark on an amorous road trip in which they "sleep or not sleep, drive or not drive, whenever it pleased them." This voluptuous aimlessness is disrupted when a private detective sent by Carol's ex-husband begins to tail them, and the holiday becomes mired in tense pursuit and evasion. In spite of the book's hopeful ending, the hampering of the women's sojourn suggests a theme that Highsmith pursued over the course of her writing career: Freedom is an illusion, and a precarious one at that.

A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid

In this classic of postcolonial criticism, Kincaid, a native of Antigua, presents a corrective to the vacationer's blinkered perspective on island life. Puncturing the seemingly benign Western ritual of the exotic holiday, the author suggests that on Antigua, the tourist's hot, pleasingly cloudless beach weather is the local's drought; the tourist's quaintly potholed roads are the local's damaged infrastructure; the tourist's primitivist utopia is the local's crushing privation. "An ugly thing, that is what you are when you become a tourist," Kincaid writes, simultaneously scathing and deadpan. "An ugly, empty thing, a stupid thing . . . and it will never occur to you that the people who inhabit the place in which you have just paused cannot stand you."

Deephaven by Sarah Orne Jewett

An early example of Jewett's Regionalist prose, this 1877 novel describes the summer holiday of Bostonians Helen Denis and Kate Lancaster in the fictional Maine fishing town of Deephaven. Like other once-overlooked Regionalist texts, the book portrays an urban upper-class foray into a delightfully rustic locale. But despite its tendency to romanticize, the book's close attention to historical circumstances makes it more than a genre piece. Jewett's account of Deephaven's adorably shabby-chic environment clashes with her depictions of the uneasy effects of urbanization and industrialization on the rural Northeast, making the book a interesting hybrid—half love letter to capitalist tourism, half critique of metropolitan expansionism and covetousness.

My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell

In this book, the Durrell family—future zoologist Gerry, brothers Leslie and Larry (the writer Lawrence Durrell), sister Margo, and their mother—leave 1930s England for the Greek island of Corfu and experience a slew of domestic adventures, many of which involve discovering reptiles and spiders in unexpected places. This charming book—part family romp, part bildungsroman—isn't really about a holiday gone wrong. Rather, it's about a holiday that has raged so out of control that it has come to replace workaday life altogether. Unlike the other anxious vacations on this list, the Durrells' seems like one a reader might actually enjoy taking, rather than just reading about.

Naomi Fry is an editor of Paper Monument.

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