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Novels about small houses in small towns can feel cramped. But in Julie Langsdorf’s White Elephant, the locals fight to keep things that way in their property battle with a builder who puts up McMansions. Set in the suburban Maryland town of Willard Park, the story depicts a married couple’s struggle with their defunct sex life, middle school kids and their awkward, back-stabbing drama, a pot-head attorney whose marriage is in trouble, and numerous sketches of other denizens. White Elephant has a long, slow start, but once it gets going, it bolts straight to the end.
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Housewife Allison Miller is at the story’s center, though it is her husband, Ted, who tackles the real estate problem. Her bemused perspective sets the novel’s tone. “She imagined what would happen if you could order a house online. It would probably arrive by drone two days later, possibly crushing an evil witch or two when it landed.” She soon sours on her husband’s obsession with protecting the town’s tiny houses, but allows other friends to distract her. Complications pile up, though this marriage never truly seems endangered. Both partners are too nice for that.
Other characters are not as nice. One husband turns out to be an utter flake and a deadbeat. One middle schooler is so untrustworthy, she’s almost villainous. But despite catastrophes, accidents, and betrayals, the place remains an idyllic suburban town just outside D.C., where everybody seems to be crammed together. And the novelist does not yield to the temptation to throw in a murder. She’s too busy detailing the impact of the real estate market on personal relationships.
White Elephant is a gentrification story which focuses on suburbs and small towns. This tale will feel familiar to anyone who has lived in an inner suburb and woken up one morning to the shock of McMansions going up nearby. Suddenly all the talk is of assessments, property values, equity, and second mortgages. The new houses tower over neighbors. Or, if a block of expensive townhouses has been installed, suddenly the local school is too small. It’s not as pernicious as urban gentrification, booting out locals to make way for wealthy hipsters and their $10 latte watering holes, but it’s a menacing cousin. Costly houses and townhouses open the door for luxury apartments, and once those appear, all the old affordable ones raise their rents. A person working full-time on minimum wage can hardly afford a one-bedroom apartment in any American city, and this is the next step, as the blight of gentrification seeps out into formerly cheap suburbs.
Like any small town, Willard Park has families rooted there for generations. “Their father had been an accountant for the IRS, their mother a housewife. Ordinary people could afford Willard Park then—teachers, government workers, hippies… Normal people, who did for themselves and others instead of hiring everything out to strangers.” With humongous abodes just starting to sprout up, this town has time to counterattack. But the locals’ reaction is rather disorganized—they are not fighters, and they lack cohesion and solidarity. Still, their leader won’t drop the issue. Without Ted, the charming little town with its cozy domiciles would be bulldozed away.
The builder, Nick Cox, embodies the gentrifying ethos: “The Coxes were like foreign visitors who had not read up on the local customs.” Indeed, at the novel’s outset, Cox’s aim is to tear down as many of the town’s small houses as possible and replace them with huge ones. He is not interested in Willard Park’s history or its residents’ roots. He’s after a quick buck, and, aside from the stock market or a casino, nowadays that means real estate. The portraits of the Coxes are nuanced, but unsparing. It fits that this novel is set so close to the District, where a former real estate mogul casts a long shadow of evictions and price hikes from his residence in the White House.