“People We Meet on Vacation” is a sweet, slow-burning romance

While the narrative arc is well-worn, the novel is nonetheless delightful and breezy.

by Mia Nelson | 5/13/21 2:00am

people-we-meet-on-vacation
by Julia Siegel / The Dartmouth

If every genre but romantic comedy suddenly disappeared from the face of the earth, absolutely nothing about my media consumption would change. I scan book reviews waiting for a hint of romance in the narrative. My streaming service recommendation algorithms have given up on selling me anything without at least a secondary plot of romance. I am indiscriminate as to whom, where or how fictional characters profess their love for each other — I only insist that they do. I love indie rom-coms about people falling in love while wearing overalls and studying at liberal arts colleges. I love blockbuster movies starring celebs with shiny teeth and perfect hair. I love love, period. 

When I say I read romantic novels, people assume I mean grocery store paperbacks, but that could not be further from the truth. In my kind of romantic novels, there is no bodice ripping or vampires — but, hey, good for you if that’s your thing –– instead, my kind of novels are like if literary fiction had a breezy, flirtatious younger sister. Emily Henry’s sophomore title “People We Meet on Vacation” is one such book — delightful and breezy, just like a romantic comedy movie, but in print. 

The general narrative arc is well-worn: Poppy, our endearing narrator, and her longtime best friend, Alex, are complete opposites in every way except for their adoration of each other. Their platonic-ish relationship includes a yearly “summer trip” — a vacation at first paid for by long hours at their campus library jobs, and later by Poppy’s gig as a travel writer. These trips are a way for us to understand Poppy and Alex’s falling-out and their two years of silence after an ill-fated kiss during one disastrous vacation. The book takes us through this tension and their reconciliation. “People We Meet on Vacation” is a will-they-won’t-they story, and while you won’t be surprised by the ending, getting there is tons of fun.

First off, Poppy’s narrative voice is irresistible. She’s funny, fresh and just the right amount of self-conscious. While some romantic comedies stumble when trying to convey authentic women with authentic flaws — think “she’s perfect but she’s so [insert completely innocuous trait like ‘clumsy’], how will she ever get a man?” — Poppy is an entirely believable person with a life that extends beyond her affiliation with Alex. In fact, much of the book is about her crisis of career choice — Alex is a symptom of her burgeoning identity, not a substitute for it. He couldn’t be: He is not nearly as interesting as Poppy.

The way we meet Alex is more interesting than who Alex actually is. “People We Meet on Vacation” alternates from the present to all their past summer trips, playing with time and evoking a parallel to the movie “When Harry Met Sally.” While this structure familiarizes us with Poppy as she matures, Alex remains, mostly, just a quiet man with a few particularities like car sickness and obsessive exercise as the story progresses. His ex-girlfriend once accused him of being too boring for her –– and I can’t say I blame her, even when Poppy expresses fury at the allegation. Poppy is always herself, making weird jokes to strangers and spontaneous decisions, while Alex is so steady. While reading, I found myself wanting someone more ecstatically happy for Poppy, someone who could match her upbeat nature. The novel gives us very few glimpses into Alex’s life, and all of the glimpses are narrated by Poppy’s voice. But Poppy’s voice is so candid, I believe her when she says she loves Alex. The magic of Poppy is that I want her to get everything she wants –– even if she wants the slightly unexciting Alex.

I would like Alex less if “People We Meet on Vacation” were a movie, but the length of a novel allows the narration to embed us in Poppy and Alex’s world. We see inside jokes from their shared past, we learn all their references, and it feels like we are with them because Henry does an excellent job of showing us the full scope of their relationship. Alex’s sweetest moments arise from our ability to know his character, past and present. He used to text Poppy pictures of his cat with the caption “tiny fighter.” Years later, the phrase “tiny fighter” becomes an endearing and appropriate nickname for Poppy, who always seems to be the one fighting for their relationship, while Alex just hopes (or mopes). The sweetness of these moments endear me to Alex, perhaps for the same reason he is endeared to Poppy — the intimacy of time, of really knowing someone. Henry’s layered storytelling approach, use of inside jokes and Poppy’s unique narrative voice makes me feel like I am truly in their world, that I’ve been a silent third member of their friendship. And if Alex can’t be interesting, at least he is known. 

What the novel is really missing isn’t a personality from Alex — we can forgive Henry for that — but an actual reason for these two to be just friends. Where are the movie-level stakes? Poppy and Alex are clearly in love with each other: They go on vacations together, they are best friends and Poppy, on numerous occasions, fantasizes about Alex. Poppy’s family can even see it —  on their first summer trip, Poppy’s eccentric parents tease the two about their relationship. Poppy keeps saying that they are too different to date –– but that’s exactly the reason Henry wants us to believe they are perfect for each other. If the best part of their relationship is that Poppy brings out the fun in Alex and Alex keeps Poppy grounded, how is their difference a big enough problem to cauterize their romantic possibilities for ten years? 

Maybe I’m cynical because current world problems seem so incomparable with Poppy and Alex’s will-they-won’t-they. It might be that while I sought comfort from the ease and lightness of the novel, I actually am too bitter to enjoy it. The novel is as dreamy as a blockbuster movie, but was I ready for it? The carefree travel that is so central to their relationship –– their summer trips –– is as tantalizing to read about as it is painful. Reading about them dancing in New Orleans together or hiking in the redwoods or drinking wine on their balcony in Tuscany makes me want to grab their shoulders and shake them. I want to say “going on fun summer vacations with your best friend is not a real problem! You both obviously love each other! Just kiss already!” Poppy would probably say to me what she repeats over and over in the novel: that she doesn’t want to lose Alex forever by risking a romantic relationship. But how can Poppy lose him when she doesn’t even really have him? 

My only significant problem with this novel is that it seems too simple. But, that’s also part of its appeal. The book is a fast read –– I read it on the Green in one morning. It’s well-written without being challenging and as glitzy and sunny as a movie of which you know the happy ending. And what, truly, is so wrong about a novel being predictable, about the characters getting together in the end? It’s kind of the whole point. “People We Meet On Vacation” glimmers, despite (or, perhaps, because of) its predictability, and the fresh voice of its narrator adds enough window dressing to make the novel worth a read even if you’re tired of boy meets girl. 

“People We Meet On Vacation” gives me exactly what I need from romantic comedies: something more real than escapism, yet more beautiful than reality. 

Rating: ★★★★☆