One of the reading groups I am part of chose People We Meet on Vacation for our August read. I quickly poked around my library catalog and saw that it had a stunning number of holds and put in my request immediately, expecting it to take a month or so for a copy to make its way to me. Surprise, surprise, I somehow got a copy in a week (I think I managed to get lucky with my local branch). I grabbed it as I took my first flight in 18 months this past weekend and was immediately pulled into this opposites attract/ friends to lovers/ second chance romance.
People We Meet on Vacation is the story of Poppy and Alex. The pair make for seemingly unlikely best friends, he’s reserved and she’s a bit reckless; he likes their hometowns, she’s intent on never returning. But following an initial meeting where they didn’t hit it off the pair drive home together after their freshman year of college (a great homage to When Harry Met Sally) and with their need to impress each other gone, they begin the sort of friendship where each side is truly seen by the other and appreciated for exactly who they are. They strike a bargain that first summer home, that Alex will accompany Poppy on a trip each summer which becomes the core of their relationship.
They keep the tradition up for a decade of friendship, until two years ago, when they ruined everything. In the same time Poppy has achieved professional success and is living the life she always wanted but she feels like she’s stuck in a rut. When asked when she was last truly happy, she knows it was on that ill-fated, final trip with Alex. She asks him to accompany her on one more vacation together where she plans to fix everything and get her happiness back. What ends up happening though is something much deeper, poking at the unspoken part of their friendship, the part that wants to be more than friends.
This is a story built around the mortifying ordeal of being known. I felt like Poppy and Alex knew and understood each other so intimately. This book was full of mutual pining, inside jokes and amazing chemistry, both in the present timeline and the flashbacks, and it all felt earned. Often characters have entire histories we the reader don’t get to see, or don’t get to see a lot of, instead picking it up based on what we’re shown in the book’s present but People We Meet on Vacation’s flashbacks gave us more time in the development of their friendship (Italy and Sanibel in particular). The structure, flashing from present back to different years mostly in reverse chronological order reminds me of another book, but I cannot put my finger on which, but either way, it worked both in setting tension and in providing beautiful context.
There’s a bit of mystery about what happened between Poppy and Alex and why they were no longer on speaking terms, but the reveal perhaps comes too late in the narrative. I’ve rated these one four stars, and this is definitely part of why, but the other thing affecting my overall rating is that the two years ago reveal was too close to the third act break up, which in this novel felt so unnecessary. I’m really getting tired of unneeded third act break-up arcs – not all romances need it, but I can’t tell you the last time I managed to read one without. I appreciate the content of the split, these two characters needed to work on some things, but I wished that it wasn’t under the gun of a pair who had finally gotten honest about the depths of their real emotions, the unspoken of 5-15%, possibly never speaking again.
That quibble aside, Henry writes beautifully. The way this book talks about loneliness and never really feeling like you belong were so strong, so heartfelt, so honest that there was a point where I had to put the book down and take a breather. This was really gripping, I read it in three long drinks. I loved the humor, the banter, the angst, all of it – which has me looking back at Henry’s last book Beach Read whose reviews I had clocked last year, but my COVID reading slump just didn’t leave room for.