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Book Review: Escape into paradise (and love) with “People We Meet on Vacation”

I’m generally not one to fall head over heels for romance novels–my reading tastes usually lean toward anything but lovey-dovey books. Ever since John Green’s teen romance novels took the world by storm, I’ve sworn off the romance genre–partly to avoid the “Why Am I Alone” spiral and the inevitable internalization of the couple’s love story (I’m looking at you “Looking for Alaska”).

Yet, I was pleasantly surprised with Emily Henry’s 2021 novel “People We Meet on Vacation,” which happens to be an early 2000s version of “When Harry Met Sally.” Henry has been riding the wave of success with her well-loved “Beach Read” from last year, and she definitely didn’t disappoint with her highly anticipated follow-up. Book Tik Tok and Instagram have wildly praised “People We Meet on Vacation” ever since its May debut, and maybe a part of me was curious about what all the hype was about.

Like any good love story, protagonists Poppy and Alex’s relationship starts off rocky. After their first meeting at the University of Chicago orientation, colorful Poppy hopes to never see the khaki-wearing Alex ever again. For the rest of the year, the two steer clear of one another until they’re forced to share a ride back to their Ohio hometown. Naturally, the two awkwardly begin to open up to one another, and we learn of Poppy’s dreams of a sophisticated lifestyle while Alex enjoys his quiet, small-town existence.

Thus, ushering in an unlikely friendship between two opposites for the ages. Twelve years later, Poppy is a successful travel journalist, and Alex is a high school English teacher in their hometown. Despite the distance, the two make annual summer trips together but have become estranged after an incident in Croatia two summers ago.

Poppy organizes a trip to Palm Springs with Alex and, like any rom-com, drama, painful yearning, and plenty of steamy moments ensue in an attempt to salvage their friendship and gain some perspective on her career.

Beyond the prescriptive steamy moments and delightful banter, Poppy and Alex are undeniably relatable and nuanced characters for the ordinary millennial. Poppy’s cosmopolitan dreams and well-deserved hatred toward her hometown sound all too familiar for anyone trying to escape the cage of their hometown. The workaholic burn-out she later develops aligns with many millennials and Gen Zers struggling with career changes and what they want after achieving their goals. Alex’s fears of uncertainty and angst hit a little too close to home for anyone in post-grad adulthood.

The novel unfolds with dual timelines–flipping back and forth between their past trips and the present day to reveal the decades-long yearning and steamy near-misses between the two oblivious friends. With every flashback, the details of their friendship and evident longing toward each other expose the inciting incident of their estrangement dramatically that only romance novels seem to ace nowadays.

If the “When Harry Met Sally” remake and painful tension doesn’t make you want to pick up “People We Meet on Vacation,” then hopefully the intelligent wit and heartfelt yearning Henry employs will. Henry masters the friends-to-lovers trope without any gimmicks and with laugh-out-loud sassiness. Poppy and Alex’s friendship and eventual relationship aren’t forced–nothing says true love in fiction like a genuine connection between characters.

If a romance novel doesn’t have the romantic tension, hilarious wit, and fanning-yourself kind of steamy scenes of “People We Meet on Vacation,” then I don’t want it! Thanks to Emily Henry, I am now a hard-core fan of contemporary romance and will be patiently waiting for her next novel.

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