There was a moment while I was reading People We Meet on Vacation when a friend brought up an extremely mundane topic. My thumbs began typing, “This guy I know has weirdly strong opinions about that,” but I didn’t hit send because I realized just in time that not only do I not know that guy, but he doesn’t even exist. Such is Emily Henry’s characterization, which here is potentially even better than in her breakout, Beach Read.
People We Meet on Vacation begins with best friends Poppy and Alexander on one of their annual vacations they’ve been embarking on since college. It just as quickly jumps ahead to the present, where they aren’t on speaking terms. The reasons for this are long, and though they don’t end up being particularly complex, I won’t spoil them here. They don’t matter as much as the frigid state of that once-warm friendship, which brings a chill on top of the crushing ennui Poppy feels about her life in New York City writing for a luxury travel magazine. When a friend asks her to think back to the last time she was truly happy, all Poppy can think is “Alex.”
Not like that, she insists—just the friendship they shared and the person she was back then. Still, attempts to break the silence. After a few short, awkward text conversations, Alex reveals his youngest brother is getting married in Palm Springs, and Poppy can come, if she wants. Her editor won’t fund a work trip to Palm Springs, so Poppy takes vacation time and pays her own way. This means an extremely sketchy ride-share care instead of a nice rental and an even sketchier AirBnB instead of a luxury hotel. Poppy doesn’t mind as long as the trip turns back the clock on their friendship, but with each minor disaster that befalls them, going back to who they used to be appears increasingly unlikely.
This is a romance, so although Poppy and Alex will tell anyone and everyone they’re “just friends,” the genre promises us there will be hanky-panky, and plenty of it. And when that dam breaks, it does feel both overdue and just on time. It feels so idyllic and perfect, until you realize there’s still half the book left—plenty of time for everything to go wrong. The fact that the futures they want are diametrically opposed—Alex wants a cozy house and children and the stable, comfortable life those would bring, while Poppy loves the excitement of living in New York City and the constant discovery travel brings. Poppy has to choose between the life she loves and the person she loves, and she’s not sure which choice sacrifices more of herself.
This isn’t really a story about falling in love, or choosing love, or proving one’s affection and devotion. More than anything, People We Meet on Vacation is a story about figuring out who you want to be. Which is really what early adulthood (or later) is really about, isn’t it? Every new person you encounter represents a different version of yourself that you could extend, that you could be. It’s harder to make the choices and do the work to be the version of yourself you want to be, and then find a partner who fits that self, than it is to find someone that looks like they could be a good mold to shove yourself into instead.
Poppy hasn’t done that, per se, but she has made a series of choices assuming the outcome would bring happiness rather than making choices that individually make her happy, and it’s starting to show. She’s reached all the goals she set for herself in college and has found herself abysmally unhappy. She thinks the secret to being happy again is a person, but (spoiler!) she eventually realizes she has to do the hard work of dissecting just what about that prior situation was the part that made her happy.
Talking to Alex helps, but even if they had the same goals, he is not the sole maker or breaker of her joy, which just really, really sucks for both of them. But who should sacrifice and how much should be lain on the altar of love? This is another question Henry poses thoughtfully. So often in romances, we see whole lifestyles offered up as a sort of an extreme The Gift of the Magi, but that’s not sustainable in real life. Henry knows this, even if her characters don’t…yet.
I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to say People We Meet on Vacation has a happy ending, especially since it’s not quite what we might have envisioned in the beginning, or in the middle. It feels right, though. It feels like the sort of happy ending real people might be able to wrangle for lasting happiness, and that’s far more satisfying than the breathless rhapsodies from bodice-rippers of yore.