2021 was a great year for romance novels. Being a romantic at heart, I devour romance books with relish and it’s so refreshing to see an increasing number of diverse authors writing books with diverse characters falling in love. It’s also interesting to see this genre evolve into several sub-genres including contemporary romances with multidimensional characters who warm your heart with their goals, quirks, worries, likes and dislikes.
People We Meet on Vacation by Emily Henry won the Goodreads Choice awards in Romance for 2021 with 88,755 votes. The book has garnered effusive praise. Jodi Picoult writes, “Emily Henry is my newest automatic-buy author, and People We Meet on Vacation is the perfect getaway: a heartfelt, funny, tender escape that you wish could last forever.”
Poppy is a travel blogger — this girl has my dream job. She gets paid to go on exotic destinations and write about her experiences. She suffers from millennial ennui and feels unhappy. Her friend Rachel asks her, “What makes you happy … When was the last time you were truly happy?” Poppy thinks to herself, “I know right away when I was last truly happy. Two years ago, in Croatia, with Alex Nilsen.”
Alex Nilsen is her friend who she met freshman year at the University of Chicago. She was wearing a “neon orange and pink floral jumpsuit from the early seventies” and he was in khakis — Poppy hates khakis. They learn that they’re both from Ohio, Alex is from a town called West Linfield and she’s from East Linfield. In choosing the names of these cities, I felt Henry was setting the tone for how different they were. It reminded me of a line from Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “East is east and west and west and never the twain shall meet.” However, in the world of romance, opposites do attract.
Alex loves the library, he’s introverted and laid back. He loves to run and sees himself settling down in a small city. Poppy loves to party, she hates running and loves talking. She also craves the excitement of a cosmopolitan city. They become good friends and vacation together every summer for 10 years. Something happens during their last vacation in Croatia, and they become estranged. Two years later, Poppy decides to reach out to Alex and convinces him to go on one last vacation together to Palm Springs, California.
The trope of friends turning into lovers is not new, but Henry has a fresh take on it. The book also incorporates another much-used trope in romance novels: the dilemma of being in a situation where there’s only one bed to sleep on. What makes this book enjoyable is that Henry created characters with an organic friendship, which makes for witty banter and lively conversations to flow naturally.
The characters are real and well-crafted — we feel their angst and longing, we root for them to live happily ever after. It’s understandable that once you build a friendship with someone, and that friendship becomes so precious and prevalent, you don’t dare risk it by taking a chance on love. The fear of a friendship getting ruined if the love affair doesn’t work out often keeps people from taking the next step. However, I believe the best connections and love stories are the ones based on genuine friendship. As the story progresses, you clearly see that Poppy and Alex have incredible chemistry, and they pine for each other.
The book is warm and authentic — it made me laugh, it made me cry, and it made me think about the meaning and purpose of my own life. I vicariously vacationed at the beautiful places like Tuscany, San Francisco and Sanibel Island which they visited in the book. The characters are well developed. We learn about the history of their relationship, we learn about their families, as well as the things they struggle with.
Henry alternates each chapter between the present summer and earlier ones, starting from their first summer vacation to the last. The one thing I didn’t like was having to wait so long to find out what happened when they were in Croatia. Whatever it was, it was big — they felt awkward together and stopped communicating for two years.
In the end, after the vacation at Palm Springs, Poppy and Alex are overwhelmed with feelings which they need to sort out. Poppy flies down to Ohio to a bar where Alex is enjoying a Friday evening out with teachers and delivers a knockout emotional speech. No spoilers here. You’ll have to read the book to find out what happens next.
It was interesting to see Poppy draw out Alex’s personality. He started opening up to her and showed her his true self. At times, he would start singing loudly and become animated. I also loved their inside travel jokes and humorous back-and-forth. While on vacation in Canada, a woman tried to sell Alex and Poppy a tiny statue for $21,000 saying people will pay money for something that “speaks to them.” This incident led Alex and Poppy to pick up random objects and ask, “Does this speak to you?” in their later vacations, which I thought was hilarious.
I would give this book four stars out of five. If you pick up this book to read, I hope it will “speak to you” like it did to me.
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