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Emily Henry’s ‘People We Meet on Vacation’ is a pitch-perfect beach read

People We Meet on Vacation  (Berkley)
People We Meet on Vacation (Berkley)
By Angela Haupt Special to the Washington Post

The first time Poppy meets Alex, she hopes she never sees him again. Any rom-com fan can tell you what that means: The protagonists of Emily Henry’s “People We Meet on Vacation” will end up together. It’s written in the stars, or at least in the DNA of this type of romance novel.

But “People” is an excellent reminder that a familiar trajectory doesn’t erase the fun of the journey. The novel – a follow-up to last year’s well-loved “Beach Read” – is absorbing and entertaining.

Henry isn’t aiming for originality: This is an updated version of “When Harry Met Sally,” which all these years later still sets the standard for friends who become lovers. She freshens it up with her signature wit, epic near misses and steamy longing that threatens to seep through the page, fogging the reader’s glasses.

Be still, rom-com loving hearts. In the novel’s opening pages, Poppy and Alex meet at the University of Chicago, just like their predecessors Harry and Sally. She’s wearing a neon orange and pink floral jumpsuit from the ’70s; he’s in khakis. He’s looking for the library; she’s seeking out a party. They successfully steer clear of each other for the next year until they end up sharing a ride back home to Ohio.

The road trip begins ominously: Poppy wants to listen to music, but Alex is highly and unpleasantly impacted by the sound of saxophones. She suggests getting to know each other; he just wants to focus on the road. Poppy gets her way, and we learn that while she’s extroverted and craves a cosmopolitan life, he’s an introvert content with a small-town existence. When she wishes she were in Paris, he longs to be studying for his American lit final.

But as Alex is belting out a pitchy rendition of Heart’s “Alone,” Poppy muses: “In that moment, he is so dramatic, so ardent, so absurd, it’s like I’m looking at an entirely separate person… . Maybe this is Naked Alex. Okay, I’ll think of a better name for it. The point is, I’m starting to like this one.”

Rom-Com Law 101 declares that opposites attract, and by the time the mismatched travelers arrive in Ohio, they’ve made plans to hang out. A best friendship has been born – and Poppy’s nickname for the relaxed, joyous side of Alex that only she gets to see becomes a permanent fixture.

More than a decade later, Poppy is a travel journalist in New York, and Alex is a teacher in their Ohio hometown (a place that Poppy loathes and refers to as “the khakis of Midwestern cities”).

Despite the distance, the two reunited every summer for 10 years for a grand vacation, but now they’re estranged – the result of an incident in Croatia two years prior. Poppy, who misses her truest friend, reaches out and convinces Alex to join her for one more trip to see if their friendship is salvageable.

The story unfolds via dual timelines. Henry shifts between the present and each of those fabulous summer trips, creating a greatest-hits reel of Poppy and Alex’s adventures: to San Francisco, to Tuscany (with significant others in tow), to New Orleans.

The flashback vacations are terrific, vicarious fun, especially as Poppy and Alex evolve from best friends to people who are clearly pining for each other.

In present-day, the two are in Palm Springs awkwardly figuring out how to take up space together – without getting too close. They’re one bumped elbow away from falling into each other’s arms, and they’d obviously rather suffer whiplash spinning away from each other than admit it.

The romantic tension – and there’s plenty – is offset by Poppy’s anguish about her future (career, location; run-of-the-mill “millennial ennui,” as she puts it).

Henry masterfully depicts early-30s uncertainty and angst, adding an interesting personal-growth dimension to the story. There are high school bullies to forgive; eccentric families to defend. Career meaning and purpose to decipher. And, naturally, all this vexation just might be blocking the path to love.

If the friends-to-lovers trope is ever in danger of feeling tired, Henry saves it with sassy wordplay. Plus, the connection between Poppy and Alex feels genuine, like the romance next door.

It’s easy to imagine yourself in Poppy’s heels or Alex’s khakis, realizing you’ve fallen for your closest friend but wary of the potential costs of making a move.

“People” lacks the pizazz – the special spark – that helped “Beach Read” shine. It’s not as deep as its predecessor, and more of a “beach read” in that it doesn’t demand too much of the reader. But it’s still unabashedly fun.

And isn’t that the joy of the people we meet on vacation anyway? They might not linger, but they light up our lives during that brief period we intersect, distracting and amusing until they rotate out of our orbits.

Poppy and Alex are wonderful, if short-lived, company. Ah, the people we meet in books that feel like a vacation.

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