If you left home — the first home, the childhood home — did you reshape yourself into someone that fit your new surroundings? Was there something about your old town, your old self, that you felt you desperately needed to escape? And now, years later, how do you feel looking back at that transition? Were you fair to the person you were, to the place and the people that raised you?
I wasn’t. There were things I needed to leave behind and things I needed to keep, but I was so intent on escaping my small Northern California town, a place I considered provincial and unsophisticated, that I tried repeatedly and in vain to fit myself into different shaped boxes, boxes that I considered better somehow. The people who stayed in that town, I thought, were tragic for being comfortable in the place where they grew up.
For some people, leaving home is a safety issue, but for a lot of us, it’s not our home that we’re escaping. It’s ourselves. This is one of the questions addressed in the beautiful, clever, funny rom com People We Meet On Vacation, Emily Henry’s follow-up to her hugely popular Beach Read.
“On vacation, you can be anyone you want.”
Henry’s book, on its surface, is a friends-to-enemies-to-lovers romance, but it’s also about how you can’t — you don’t need to — escape who you are, whether it means moving to a new big city or living at airports or convincing yourself you belong with people who are aspirational and cool instead of the person with whom you fit like a glove.
Anchoring Henry’s sparkling, effortlessly charming novel is Poppy, a jetsetting magazine writer and influencer with a thriving career and an empty Lower East Side apartment. Every year for a decade, she’s gone on a summer vacation with her best friend from back home, Alex, who’s everything she’s not: where she’s fashionable, he’s a khakis-clad high school teacher. While she can’t keep still for longer than a couple weeks in any given place, he’d rather hang out with his family in the hometown he only leaves for his yearly excursions with Poppy. In short: she’s a Carrie, he’s a Miranda. But when they grow too close for comfort over a particularly taxing trip abroad, their friendship buckles beneath the pressure, an event that breaks Poppy’s heart.
Henry’s inventive novel bounces between the present day, in which Poppy feverishly attempts to reconnect with Alex during a summer work trip that dovetails with a family wedding in Palm Springs, and their summers together working up from when they met in college to the present day.
People We Meet On Vacation is fast-paced but poignant, clever and funny but never insincere. It’s also a timely reminder to everyone who’s been confined to their houses for the past year that the outside world, with its novelty and adventures, don’t necessarily hold any answers you can’t find closer to home.
Below, read my interview with Emily Henry, in which we discuss her novel’s unique structure, her natural ear for dialogue, and a particularly memorable in-flight breakfast.
Buy People We Meet On Vacation on Bookshop.
I love the unique structure of this novel, in which Poppy and Alex’s relationship is told primarily through their yearly summer vacations they take together, with each past vacation alternating with the present. How did you decide you wanted to tell the story this way? What effect were you looking to create with this structure?
The structure came first for this one! My agent, editor, and I had been passing around ideas for months. I mean, we probably considered at least a hundred directions for this book, but we all thought it would be really fun to play with structure in a way. At the same time, I was thinking about setting, and I had a lot of ideas for places to set a book, but they were mostly places I’d only been as a visitor, and I think to write about a place like a local, you really need a familiar and intimacy that I just didn’t have with these settings.
But I did feel like I knew enough of the experience a tourist would have in those places, so then I thought, okay maybe I just take these characters through all these different locations. I liked that the dual timelines would A) give us a ton of time to get to know the characters and B) create a sense of mystery that I thought would up the feeling of tension in the book. I ended up writing the book more or less in the order it’s published in, so basically I would just take the current day trip to a breaking point and then switch over. I hoped this would create a sense of a few mini-cliffhangers while also dovetailing Alex and Poppy’s past into their present — I wanted the reader to see where the tension of the present day chapters came from in Alex and Poppy’s history.
The banter between these characters is genuinely hilarious. How do you approach writing funny dialogue? Does it flow easily as you draft, or do you find yourself revising and editing dialogue for a while to strike the perfect tone?
It mostly just happens, but I will sometimes text my friends to ask which is funnier. Or sometimes I’ll write a joke, and then in the second draft, I’ll realize a slight change would set the characters up for another joke that I think is even better. It’s definitely a weird experience because it’s basically just writing a conversation I’m having with myself, but when I know my characters — and which part of me they come from — I find it fairly easy to imagine how they’d respond and react to dialogue.
One of the things I love most about this novel is how you treat the concept of “getting out.” So often, especially among people who moved to cities (in my experience, at least), our childhood homes are thought of as places to escape: The people who stayed have somehow given up or “lost” while people who moved to the city and found career success have “won.” But your novel beautifully challenges that concept. I’d love to know more about why you decided to work that into People We Meet On Vacation.
I’m realizing that I’m always fascinated by the things we unnecessarily judge. So much of your life is about overcoming your insecurities and accepting yourself, and I think judgment often comes from insecurity. You’re worried you’re the wrong kind of person, and you react to that by looking down on a different kind. Poppy wanted out of her hometown because she felt rejected by it, and it’s a huge part of her journey to accept herself enough that she can comfortable in the place where she felt all those insecurities at their worst. I think the most self-assured we become, the less we need anyone else to be like us.
What’s the most memorable breakfast you’ve ever eaten while traveling? Can be memorable for being delightful and delicious or for being truly terrible.
Oh my gosh, I love this question. Breakfast is my favorite. The Blue Heron Inn is based on a real place (with a different name) that serves a fantastic English breakfast. I would also say my first ever enjoyable airplane meal was a breakfast on an AirFrance flight. There was a French yogurt pot that blew my mind, and made me suddenly love yogurt. It makes me feel two-hundred-years old to say that, but it’s true. I love yogurt. If Activia needs a costar for those Jamie Lee Curtis commercials, they can hit me up.