Mediterranean Vacation: Go On a Virtual Holiday with These Books
As international travel is still unwise, except in emergencies, many of us can’t go on the vacations we deserve. I’ve put together a list of books that feel like a vacation for you.
It’s “spring” in London, which means I’m wearing fuzzy sweaters and thick wool socks. However, I’m imagining that I’m on the beach, far away from the dirty Thames.
Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis De Bernières
You might think that stories set during a devastating war are not vacation vibes, but war stories are a vacation favorite of mine. Maybe I’m just weird and chronically damaged by my international relations degrees and all the war content they entailed. Either way, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin has a beautiful Mediterranean setting in Kefalonia and De Bernières creates a lot of sunny imagery.
Dr. Iannis and his daughter Pelagia live in a fishing village during WWII when parts of Greece are occupied by enemy Italian troops. The man in charge of the troops, Captain Corelli, takes a liking to Pelagia and the two try to make their relationship work during this fraught time. It feels like a classic tragic love story, but I there is also a great discussion on WWII and gender politics as an added layer.
If you think this book sounds heavy for vacation reading, perhaps this is the wrong listicle for you.
Evil Under the Sun by Agatha Christie
Perhaps the most famous of Agatha Christie’s seaside murders is And Then There Were None, but I have a soft spot for Evil Under the Sun. The famous detective Hercule Poirot is on vacation, wanting a break from all the grisly murders and such, but when he arrives at the remote seaside resort, he finds that all the guests have beef with each other. Notably, Arlena Stuart, the beautiful young wife of one of the holiday-makers, seems to flirt with every man there. When she turns up murdered on the beach of a secluded cove, Poirot has to step in to solve the case.
This is one of the first Poirot movies I watched when I was younger and it became an immediate favorite. I finally read the book in 2019, indeed while I was on vacation by the beach. It was the right amount of exciting and relaxing for reading on vacation and I think the vibe of it works well as pretend-vacation escapism. The setting is not in the Mediterranean, but the beachy vibe is enough, I think.
The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak
Set across two settings and time periods — 1970s Nicosia, Cyprus and 2010s London — Shafak’s characters learn to survive and heal from immediate and generational trauma. Kostas (Greek) and Defne (Turkish) meet as teens in their hometown of Nicosia and fall in love. A civil war tears them apart, but they move to London to grow their forbidden love on neutral ground. Years later, Defne’s sister, Meryem, visits Defne and Kostas’ teenage daughter, Ada, in London after Defne’s untimely death, which opens old wounds.
The reason I feel this is a perfect vacation read is the summery imagery in the scenes set on Cyprus. I also feel the London setting, which takes place mostly over the winter, is the perfect foil to the sunny, warm Nicosia setting. Much of the Nicosia story is set around a local taverna which serves several warm, colorful characters and always carts out delicious food. To me, Mediterranean vacation also means delicious food and this book made me so hungry. Elif Shafak is a wonderfully talented writer who crafts beautiful imagery and layered characters. Beyond the story itself, this book is also a discussion on identity and nationalism (like so many others of Elif Shafak’s stories).
The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker
Yes, another war plot, but the surroundings felt like vacation to me. Maybe this is because I was in Turkey when I was reading it. I am, and probably always will be, a historian at heart, so for me, vacations include understanding the history of places I am visiting. This one takes the classic Illiad story and retells it from the perspective of Briseis, a high-born queen of Lyrnessus, and her capture and enslavement by the Greek enemy troops, specifically Achilles.
The actual story depicted here is bleak which clashes with the warm seaside setting: Briseis goes from feeling trapped in her husband’s castle to being literally trapped in the Greek war camp, where she is seen as only useful in bed. In her captivity, Briseis forges relationships with her fellow prisoners and ponders the course of her life to date and what her future might hold. As she plots her life, she finds small joys and creates room for hope. Her long, seemingly endless days at the camp parallel the aimless days of summer vacation — another reason this book feels like a beach read to me.
The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
A Trojan War setting and The Illiad retelling again? Though with a sad ending, this one felt much less bleak to me than The Silence of the Girls. It’s another tragic love story, this time between the legendary Greek warrior Achilles and Patroclus. They meet as children and grow up together. Ultimately, they are shipped off to Troy together due to an oath sworn by all of the beautiful Helen’s suitors at her engagement to Menelaus.
The entire story is set in a warm climate, but the real vacation vibes I get from this are the early scenes where Achilles and Patroclus are training and learning together as boys and young men. Most of the war part of the story is not set during battle, but the monotony of camp life, which also feels like a lazy day by the beach (kind of). I was having lazy days at the beach while I was reading it, which may have colored my perception of this book.
If I were to round out this list with yet another The Illiad retelling, I could tell you to read A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes, but I won’t. That is a step too far, even for me.
Where My Heart Used to Beat by Sebastian Faulks
I really admire Sebastian Faulks’ writing style and he seems to love Mediterranean settings, so of course he had to appear on this list. Where My Heart Used to Beat is not one of my favorite books of his, nor is the plot particularly compelling (I have forgotten most of it), but the south of France setting feels very tangible. When you’re on vacation, isn’t it normal to want to ingest some drivel with an escapist setting? I felt like the sun was actually shining on my skin. In reality, I was sitting on a bus in the rain while I was reading this.
The main character, Robert, receives a mysterious invitation by an old recluse to come to the south of France to write his biography. In their discussions about the past, Robert has to explore his own checkered past. While in France, Robert makes the acquaintance of a beautiful young woman, which makes for an interesting subplot. Though not set during wartime, this book does discuss the long shadows of WWII.
War and murder, but make it vacay.
As I come to the end of this list, I realize that this might not be your typical vacation reading recommendation list. I do have a penchant for reading war stories, so I suppose it makes sense that war would make it on my vacation vibes list.