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People We Meet on Vacation Summary, Characters and Themes

“People We Meet on Vacation” is a heartwarming contemporary romance novel that captures the complexities of love, friendship, and self-discovery. 

The story unfolds through the lives of Poppy Wright and Alex Nilsen, whose journey from acquaintances to lovers over 12 years is anything but ordinary.

Full Summary

At the heart of the story is Poppy Wright, a spirited travel writer living her dream in New York City. 

Despite her professional success, she’s been grappling with unhappiness since a fallout with Alex, her best friend, during a trip to Croatia two years earlier. 

This incident marks a significant turning point in their relationship, leading to a two-year estrangement that weighs heavily on her heart.

The narrative intricately weaves two timelines: one that follows 30-year-old Poppy and Alex as they navigate their complex feelings in the present, and another that delves into the history of their annual summer vacations, which began during their college days at the University of Chicago.

Poppy and Alex are a study in contrasts: Poppy, the vibrant and adventurous college dropout, and Alex, the tall, introspective honors student. 

Their friendship blooms from these differences, creating a bond that deepens with each summer trip. These vacations, initially taken on a modest budget, become a tradition and a refuge for both, where they share their deepest secrets and fears. 

Poppy opens up about her struggles with bullying back in her Ohio hometown, while Alex shares the weight of his responsibilities following his mother’s death.

Post-college life takes them to different cities — Poppy to New York for her writing career, and Alex to Indiana for an MFA in creative writing. 

Yet, their summer escapades continue, with an underlying sexual tension that starts to simmer over the years. Poppy, valuing their friendship, avoids romantic entanglement, cycling through various boyfriends who never truly understand her. 

Meanwhile, Alex is fixated on Sarah Torval, a woman he views as his ideal, who is envious of his close bond with Poppy.

The pivotal Croatia trip changes everything. A drunken kiss shared between Poppy and Alex reveals intense, underlying feelings, leading to a painful misunderstanding and their subsequent estrangement.

They each mistakenly believe the other regrets the kiss, choosing silence over confrontation.

Two years later, a trip to Palm Springs, planned by Poppy, aims to rekindle their friendship. 

However, the trip, marked by extreme heat and a cramped living situation, brings their unspoken feelings to the forefront. A heated argument finally breaks the tension, leading them to confess their love and spend a few days as a couple at Alex’s brother David’s wedding. 

But when Poppy admits she needed the trip to escape her unhappy life, Alex misunderstands, thinking he was just a temporary escape for her.

Back in New York, a desolate Poppy seeks therapy, confronting her past and her fear of intimacy and commitment. She realizes her love for Alex was always shadowed by her fear of rejection, keeping him in the safe zone of a vacation friend.

Determined to change her life, Poppy travels to Linfield, Alex’s hometown, to confront their feelings and fears. After an initial resistance, Alex admits his own fear of happiness due to his mother’s loss. In a moment of vulnerability and courage, they decide to give their love a chance, embracing the uncertainty of a future together, split between New York and Linfield.

People We Meet on Vacation Summary


Poppy Wright

Poppy Wright, a dynamic protagonist in “People We Meet on Vacation,” is characterized by her vibrant, eccentric personality and insatiable wanderlust. With her blonde, wavy hair and penchant for bold, vintage clothing, Poppy’s appearance reflects her spirited nature. 

Despite her outward confidence, she harbors insecurities about her changing body and fears being perceived as less appealing than in her social media heyday. Professionally successful as a travel writer, Poppy nevertheless struggles with her identity, caught between her glamorous public persona and her past as a bullied, small-town runaway. 

Her journey in the novel is one of self-discovery, as she confronts her fears and insecurities, reconciling her past with her present to find true happiness with Alex.

Alex Nilsen

Alex Nilsen, the romantic hero of the story, is a tall, sandy-haired figure with an impressive physique, more a result of his health anxieties than vanity. His life is a contrast to Poppy’s adventurous spirit, being deeply rooted in familial responsibilities and a desire for stability. 

Despite his conservative demeanor and introverted nature, Alex comes alive in Poppy’s presence, revealing a more spontaneous and youthful side. 

His journey involves reconciling his responsible, controlled persona with his deep, often unacknowledged, passion for Poppy, ultimately allowing himself to embrace happiness and love.

Rachel Krohn

Rachel Krohn, Poppy’s stylish and influential New York friend, embodies the quintessential urban influencer, yet is surprisingly down-to-earth. Despite her glamorous lifestyle, Rachel prefers the comforts of home, contrasting with Poppy’s love for travel. 

As Poppy’s confidante, Rachel plays a pivotal role in guiding her through emotional turmoil, encouraging her to seek happiness and introspection, though Poppy’s most personal struggles, particularly regarding Alex, remain her own.

Sarah Torval

Sarah Torval is Alex’s on-off girlfriend and Poppy’s antithesis. A serious, literary figure with a neat, classic style, Sarah’s relationship with Alex is logical and stable but lacks the chemistry and passion he shares with Poppy. 

Sarah’s presence in the novel underscores the theme of opposites attracting, as her compatibility with Alex on paper pales in comparison to the deep, albeit complicated, connection he has with Poppy.


Julian, Poppy’s first serious boyfriend, epitomizes the carefree, artistic spirit, contrasting sharply with Alex’s responsible nature. 

His unpredictable and noncommittal approach to life both attracts and frustrates Poppy, highlighting the complexities of her romantic preferences and her journey towards understanding what she truly seeks in a partner.


Guillermo, a charming New York chef and Poppy’s boyfriend, represents a step towards a more mature relationship for Poppy. 

His sophisticated demeanor and gentle nature offer a sense of stability, yet Poppy’s insecurities and unresolved feelings about her past and her identity eventually lead to the relationship’s downfall.


Trey, a photographer and one of Poppy’s boyfriends, brings a blend of maturity and adventurous spirit. 

His compatibility with Poppy seems apparent, yet their relationship ultimately reveals Poppy’s deeper longing for a connection that goes beyond shared interests and surface-level chemistry, pointing her back towards Alex.


1. The Complexity of Friendship and Love

The book delves deep into the intricate relationship between friendship and romantic love. 

Poppy and Alex’s journey from acquaintances to friends, and eventually lovers, highlights the thin line that often exists between platonic and romantic feelings. The novel explores how deep, meaningful friendships can lay a foundation for a stronger, more profound love. It also addresses the fears and uncertainties that come with transitioning from a friendship to a romantic relationship. 

The characters’ internal struggles, miscommunications, and the evolution of their relationship underscore the theme that love is often rooted in a profound understanding and acceptance of each other, as seen in the best of friendships.

2. Self-Discovery and Personal Growth

Throughout the novel, both Poppy and Alex embark on personal journeys of self-discovery. 

Poppy, despite her outward success and adventurous spirit, grapples with internal unhappiness and unfulfilled desires. Her journey is one of confronting past traumas, understanding her true desires, and overcoming her fear of intimacy and commitment. 

Alex, on the other hand, faces his fear of happiness and the emotional baggage from his past. The novel beautifully illustrates how personal growth is often a prerequisite to a fulfilling relationship. 

It shows that understanding oneself, facing one’s fears, and embracing change are crucial steps in becoming ready to fully commit to another person.

3. The Impact of Past Experiences on Present Relationships

The book skillfully portrays how past experiences, both positive and negative, shape individuals’ approaches to relationships and life. 

Poppy’s experiences with bullying and her need to escape her past in Linfield play a significant role in how she approaches her relationship with Alex. Similarly, Alex’s experience of losing his mother at a young age and his sense of responsibility towards his family influence his fears and relationships. 

The novel underscores the idea that our pasts are not just memories, but active influences on our present actions and choices, particularly in matters of the heart. This theme is woven throughout the narrative, showing that understanding and reconciling with one’s past is essential for moving forward in life and love.

Final Thoughts

“People We Meet on Vacation” is a beautifully crafted novel that delves deep into the complexities of relationships and personal growth. The novel skillfully captures the essence of evolving friendships and the courage required to face one’s fears and vulnerabilities.

The story resonates with anyone who has ever navigated the intricate dance of turning friendship into romance, making it a relatable and heartfelt read.