It’s “wacky love adventures” while traveling season
Road-trip romances can feel as tedious and claustrophobic as an actual cross-country car ride. Too often, the meandering premise is simply a lazy shortcut to forced proximity and the inevitable moment that forces the hero and heroine to spend the night at a shabby motel where—whoops!—there’s only one bed available. If reading about two people falling in love while having “wacky” adventures on the road and meeting “quirky” characters along the way isn’t your idea of a good time, join the club; if God wanted us to take road trips, he wouldn’t have invented airplanes.
But summer is here, and, like clockwork, so is a new crop of road-trip romances. Blame pandemic-induced cabin fever, fear of flying, or wanderlust, but I didn’t hate The Road Trip or People We Meet on Vacation. The authors don’t confine these contemporary romcoms to the car ride, but jump back and forth in time and point of view, triangulating the ups and downs of relationships over several years. Both are second-chance romances—another trope I usually hate, but one that pairs well with a road trip. Being cooped up in a car or hotel room together reminds the characters why they fell for each other in the first place and forces them to confront what went wrong, and whether it’s worth righting.
The titular journey of Beth O’Leary’s The Road Trip isn’t meant to be a road trip at all. It’s more of a day trip that goes hilariously (but relatably) awry as two exes, their best friends, and one ride-sharing rando try to make it from Sussex to Scotland in time for a mutual’s wedding. Instead of taking separate cars, Addie and Dylan—who went through a bad breakup two years ago—are unexpectedly forced to cram into a single Mini Cooper. “I was supposed to see Dylan this weekend, for the first time in almost two years, but it should have been at the wedding,” Addie complains. “No makeup, scruffy overalls, no mousse in my hair. I’ve spent bloody months planning the outfit I was supposed to be wearing when I saw Dylan again, and this was not it.”
O’Leary reveals the reasons they got together and broke up in a series of flashbacks to the summer they met in Provence. We learn that Dylan is a bit of an entitled jerk, and his best friend Marcus even more so. As in O’Leary’s charming 2019 romance The Flatshare, dark themes lurk under the twinkly British-accented banter. Both Dylan and Addie are travelling with a lot of heavy psychological baggage. “Giving up your heart is scary,” Addie reflects, “but doable if the other person does it at the exact same moment, like two soldiers lowering their weapons.”
Emily Henry’s People We Meet on Vacation takes a similar out-of-the-car approach to the road trip. Henry’s Beach Read was last summer’s buzzy romance, pairing up two blocked writers who complete each other’s books while living next door to each other at a lake. In her new book, heroine Poppy is a writer, too, a budget-travel blogger who’s worked her way up to a cushy job at pretentious New York travel magazine R+R. But she hasn’t left behind her tradition of taking a summer trip with her platonic college pal Alex Nilsen, a teacher back in their small Midwestern hometown. This year’s destination is Palm Springs, where Alex’s brother is getting married. Only Poppy hasn’t told Alex that this vacation is on her dime, not the magazine’s, or that she’s been in love with him since that drunken kiss in Croatia on their last trip.
“What is there left when you’ve got your dream apartment, your dream boss, and your dream job (which negates any anxiety over your dream apartment’s obscenely high rent, because you spend most of your time eating at Michelin-starred restaurants on the company’s dime anyway??)” For Poppy, it’s Alex, and a vague longing for simpler times, when travel was an adventure instead of a paycheck.
“On vacation, you can be anyone you want,” Poppy muses. “Like a good book or an incredible outfit, being on vacation transports you into another version of yourself. . . . On vacation, your hair changes. The water is different, maybe the shampoo. . . You think, Maybe I could do this at home too. . . On vacation, you strike up conversations with strangers. . . If it turns out impossibly awkward, who cares? You’ll never see them again!” Even staid, khaki-wearing control freak Alex lets loose on their trips. “Weirdo Alex comes out and I get to watch him, like, lie on the floor fake-sobbing into a microphone at karaoke, his sandy hair sticking up in every direction and wrinkly dress shirt coming untucked.” Our vacation selves may be more attractive, but are they more authentic? Or are they as ephemeral as a souvenir T-shirt?
As in When Harry Met Sally—an obvious inspiration—Poppy and Alex are opposites who are clearly perfect for each other, but work, distance, and timing have kept them apart. What’s a vacation without some missed connections?