In June, I raved about It All Comes Down to This by Therese Anne Fowler, and I’m still talking about it. The characters, the setting on Maine’s coast, the ease of falling into a story that not only made me feel good but took me away to a complicated family of sisters putting their lives back together. It remains high on my list of reading recommendations.
Now, Vacationland by Meg Mitchell Moore—a new-to-me author, although this is her seventh novel—offers many of the same qualities found in Fowler’s book. Vacationland, too, is set on Maine’s coast at a family summer home. It features an endearing family working through its challenges. The story was easy to embrace, and it is a different sort of feel-good story.
Louisa Fitzgerald McLean, a 39-year-old NYU history professor, is finishing her sabbatical, while she and her children (Matty, 12; Abigail, 10; and Claire, 7) are, for the first time, spending the entire summer at her parents’ coastal summer home in Owl’s Head, Maine. The plan is for the kids to have the kind of carefree summer that Louisa enjoyed growing up. She’ll be able to write her book and meet its deadline. Still, she is disappointed that her husband, Steven, decides to remain at home in Brooklyn, getting his podcast production company in shape to be sold to investors. Louisa grapples with understanding his motives while wishing he finally would lend a hand with the kids while she works.
As the center of the family sandwich, Louisa also wrestles with coming to grips with the fact that her father, a brilliant, retired Maine Supreme Court judge, is slipping away courtesy of Alzheimer’s. His days are sometimes good, sometimes bad. Her always-put-together mother, Annie, struggles with having to decide whether putting him in a home might be the best thing for him. If Annie were do that, however, she would have to sell the family’s beloved summer home.
Concurrently, Kristie Turner, a 29-year-old young woman overwhelmed with grief and bolstered by grit, wants a fresh start after caring for and losing her mother. She uproots herself and travels from Pennsylvania to Maine, partly to escape the collectors who want $27,000 for her mother’s unpaid medical bills and partly as the result of the contents of a letter from her mother that Kristie has memorized word for word. Despite most seasonal jobs having been filled, she manages to find work as a server. She also meets Danny, a kind and handsome man who does odd jobs at Martin and Annie’s summer place when he’s not working for a local landscaping company. Kristie takes one step at a time and moves forward as gingerly as she can while her meager savings trickles away, but her relationship with Danny is the highlight of her life.
The contrast between Louisa’s and Kristie’s lives are not lost on the reader. Both socio-economic situations are presented realistically and without judgment. Both Kristie and Louisa have their own sets of obstacles and challenges, but some are, unexpectedly to some, shared.
The story reminds us that privilege and money won’t solve every problem; however, that particular judgment must be made from the viewpoint of those who have it and those who do not. Questionable choices, innocent mistakes, resentment; juggling work and family; dealing with elder illness and its impacts upon an entire family; and paternity issues weave themselves throughout the story as honestly and genuinely as Matty’s first massive crush, Abigail’s obsession with writing detailed letters to her father, and Claire’s amusing unfiltered world view.
The hardest part of all may be offering forgiveness in the face of sudden knowledge. The beauty of Vacationland is that while the reader most certainly will figure out where the story is headed, the closing chapters resolve certain issues in a surprising but thoroughly acceptable manner.
Fowler’s It All Comes Down to This and Moore’s Vacationland beg you to wrap your arms around the characters and embrace them as old friends. Similar setting, different stories, together both stories make an excellent double feature staycation.
Meg Mitchell Moore lives in the beautiful coastal town of Newburyport, MA, with her husband and their three daughters. Vacationland is her seventh novel.