Two rivals. One holiday. A trip they’ll never forget. If that’s your idea of a perfect summer read, then Jo Watson’s What Happens On Vacation is the uplifting rom-com you need in your life right now. The rivals at the heart of the story are journalists Margaret and Jagger. Margaret is serious and conscientious by nature. She’s had a difficult couple of years with a devastating bereavement and a divorce, and she’s got her heart set on winning the annual office quiz night prize of an all-expenses-paid trip to Zanzibar. She’s got everything planned out. The only thing she didn’t plan on was her vexingly laidback, charismatic and secretly very clever office rival Jagger also entering the quiz.
For the last six months, Jagger has driven Margaret crazy with his lack of desk boundaries, his frivolous click bait dating antics and his amusement in getting a rise out of her. Now, much to Margaret’s stomach-sinking horror and Jagger’s blatant delight, they get to share the holiday prize. Having Jagger and his father along on her much-needed mother-daughter trip isn’t exactly ideal but Margaret is reluctantly willing to compromise. Away from the office and in a beautiful tropical paradise, she starts to see a different side of her so-called enemy. A whip-smart, thoughtful and sincere side that Margaret might have noticed earlier if she hadn’t been quite so determined to despise him from day one.
What Happens On Vacation is a novel that took me by surprise, mostly because I was utterly convinced within the early chapters that I wasn’t going to warm to the characters. Margaret was judgemental, bordering on snobby. Jagger seemed to be the typical arrogant womaniser. But this is very much a book about not judging a book by its cover and giving things a chance. And, like Jagger slowly and endearingly wins over Margaret, this is a story that crept up on me, charming me with its earnest mix of witty forced-proximity romance, heart-felt family dynamics and fun noughties reminiscences. So much so that by the halfway mark, I was wholeheartedly cheering on Jagger as he tried to show Margaret that he was deserving of not just a chance, but her heart too.
He gave me that stupid lopsided smile of his, which I’ve noticed seems to have quite an effect on all the females in the office. It seems to make them positively lopsided themselves. In fact, some seem so lopsided that they look as if they might fall over onto their backs. Not me, though. I remain upright.“
What makes this book such a delight is Margaret’s unwavering resolve to dislike Jagger and her dedication to pushing him away whenever he gets close enough to prove he could be exactly the kind of man she needs in her life after her divorce left her jaded with love. It’s a classic opposites-attract scenario, jostled along by Margaret’s free-spirited mum and Jagger’s easy-going dad, who get on swimmingly from the moment they meet, forcing Margaret and Jagger to spend all their holiday time together. The best part of the story is the fact that Jagger doesn’t share even an ounce of Margaret’s animosity. She might view him as her office enemy, but he’s quite clearly smitten with her from the opening page. He’s always trying to win her over or make her laugh. It takes Margaret learning to let go of her preconceived ideas, as well as the hurts of the past, to begin to see it.
Every summer read needs an escapist backdrop and Zanzibar provides a sultry holiday atmosphere that echoes the ever-rising temperature between Margaret and Jagger. There’s a little bit of Tanzanian culture thrown into the novel as the two journalists complete to see who can write the best article based on their shared holiday experience. There’s also a solid emotional heart running through the story as Margaret struggles to grieve the sudden death of her father, something that was inspired by Watson’s own bereavement. Margaret’s inability to move on romantically is all tied up with her grief and understandable sense of loss. It’s easier to just shut herself off from love completely than risk her heart getting broken again. Jagger’s freely given affection and uncomplicated outlook shows her that sometimes it’s worth taking a leap of faith.
Whilst Watson touches on family bereavement and the aftermath of divorce, these more poignant themes are never overpowering. This book is a contemporary romance first and foremost, and as such is an entertaining, heartening and funny story that will have you cringing and laughing out loud as Margaret winds up in increasingly awkward situations as she tries to deny her real feelings. More grumpy x sunshine than enemies-to-lovers, but with plenty of the banter and chemistry associated with the latter trope, What Happens On Vacation is a perfect poolside read. And if you can’t find a pool, you can enjoy the holiday vibes vicariously through Margaret. The question is, what company gives up a free tropical holiday as a quiz night prize? Because that’s a company I want to work for.
What Happens On Vacation was published by Headline Eternal on 20 July 2023