“An Endless Succession of Magnificent Possibilities”: Why We Love Vacation Novels


“Something tells me we’re not going to like this place,” declares Rosemary Hoyt’s mother in the first spoken words of Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night. “I want to go home anyway,” Rosemary replies. It’s a moment of exquisite irony, considering Fitzgerald has just spent 500 words describing the perfect isolation of the Hoyts’ French Riviera environs, where “the pink and cream of old fortifications, the purple Alp that bounded Italy, were cast across the water and lay quavering in the ripples and rings sent up by sea plants through the clear shallows.” It’s a traveler’s utopia, with all the romance of an undiscovered paradise and none of the touristic trappings — yet Rosemary, a follower in all things, doesn’t immediately see it that way. But with her unexpected introduction to Dick and Nicole Diver, models of cool elegance and social surety, Rosemary feels the sense of possibility she longed for in her travels open up. With one chance encounter, the promise of the trips unfurls itself. Dick’s voice “promised that he would take care of her, and that little later he would open up whole new worlds for her, unroll an endless succession of magnificent possibilities.”

Possibility is, of course, the raison d’etre of the vacation novel: the narrative is a respite from the tiresome repetition and banality of daily life. It’s a crisp Mediterranean breeze floating through our hunched-over-turkey-sandwich-at-our-desk lunch break, a rustle of forest leaves instead of the shuffle of files. And that could be enough: the power to transport and entertain is a worthy goal for the novel to pursue.

But the best vacation novels offer something more: they join the reader and the character in the same spirit of removal from the bounds of the quotidian. In these narratives, characters observe the world like readers do, with fresh eyes and no foreknowledge. The strictures and parameters of normal life aren’t merely loosened, they’re set aside, and an entirely new assumption about how to live and why we live are taken on. In the vacation novel the character is offered a compact period of time in which to step outside the incessant onward march forward through time. A vacation novel may stretch beyond that period, but the effect remains: we are reminded that pleasure and possibility are fleeting and that our attempts to shoehorn them into a week or month of our lives will leave us, at best, still searching, and at worst, disenchanted and unfulfilled.

Precisely what is a vacation novel? Simply labeling any work in which “a man goes on an adventure” a vacation novel too broadly sketches the category. After all, there is nothing truly pleasure-seeking about Joachim’s “rest cure” in The Magic Mountain or Kafka’s sojourn in the library in Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore. Even novels based specifically around travel don’t inherently capture the same effervescence that the holiday novel does. Henry James’ transplants, who move to and fro among the old world and the new, may be on adventures, but Lewis Strether and Isabel Archer and their ilk aren’t seeking breaks from the routines of daily life, they’re seeking new daily lives entirely. Agatha Christie’s detectives simply must go on holiday — otherwise they would run out of dead bodies to investigate in their quaint British towns. It is the expectation of a short release, combined with the possibility of possibility, that separates the travel novel from his cousins.

E.M. Forster’s A Room With a View immediately establishes what its characters are seeking on their Italian holiday. While Charlotte Bartlett is immediately concerned with the disregarded promise of “south rooms with a view close together,” Lucy Honeychurch cannot move past the very Englishness of their hotel. “And a Cockney, besides!” she exclaims, “It might be London.” The two women talk past one another, both dissatisfied with the Italian hotel, but for very different reasons. Miss Bartlett’s frustration is practical: the two ladies were not given the rooms they were promised, and the quality of their stay will certainly be suppressed by this fact. But Lucy’s irritation stems from a feeling that she has not truly slipped away from the stifled, close collar of English society. Even on this holiday, she fears, her posture must be ramrod and her moral compass must point her north.

But Italy performs for Lucy precisely as she might have hoped. Although she has a chaperone in Miss Bartlett, Italy (a favorite dumping ground for British authors seeking romantic but “dangerous” settings; see: Daisy Miller) repeatedly thrusts Lucy out into the world. First, the room without a view draws over the charming, if uncouth, Emerson pere et fils, a duo with whom she would never mix in English society but who will continue to swerve in and out of her life. Then, her faithful Baedeker fails her and Lucy loses her way in Santa Croce, where she is truly alone for perhaps the first time in her adult life. Next, she witnesses a murder on the streets of Florence — a crime which we understand to be nearly as offensive to Lucy’s innocent eyes as to the body of the slain man. And then, after a simple linguistic mix-up, Lucy is brought out to a swaying field of violets, where she is kissed in plain view. It is a sequence of events only made possible because Lucy can dance around propriety for this short period of time.

The first part of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse is, as Eudora Welty put it, “thronging with possibilities,” and with Mrs. Ramsay’s opening statement in medias res, “Yes, of course, if it’s fine tomorrow,” the novel juts out into the world. “To her son these words conveyed an extraordinary joy,” it goes on, “as if it were settled, the expedition were bound to take place, and the wonder to which he had looked forward, for years and years it seemed, was, after a night’s darkness and a day’s sail, within touch.” In fact, all of “The Window” (a rather poetic name for this section) is enlivened by this quest, and as we pass from character to character, from Mrs. Ramsay in her quiet certitude to Lily Briscoe in her meditative state to young James’ innocent wonderment, Woolf slowly builds a strange excitement among the characters and then her readers. There is something about the island and the lighthouse and its perch on the horizon — visible and yet perhaps unreachable — that keeps the Ramsays and the readers aligned toward the possibility of conquering it, even after years of war and death and destruction. The lighthouse stands firm.

Of course, the allure of change and reinvention that a holiday brings can be crushing rather than enlivening. Edna Pontellier emerges from the sea with her young lover on the first pages of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, and walks back into the waves alone after the strictures of normal life prove too confining for their love. Loosened by the excitingly charged setting of her visit to the abbey, Northanger Abbey’s Catherine Morland mistakes hidden sadness for intrigue, nearly costing her love and her reputation. Daisy Miller cannot, or will not, control the urge for freedom and boldness that she perceives as the mark of a well-traveled woman, a naivety that ultimately kills her. And the Divers of the French Riviera are ultimately not the real Divers, a fact that Rosemary cannot know until she reunites with them back in America. But it is often the blow we suffer after returning from a geographical dalliance that most firmly establishes in us a desire to escape yet again.