We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
If you read only one novel about Rockville Pike this year, make it Susan Coll’s Rockville Pike. The book combines big-box retailing, stressed-out soccer moms, and F. Scott Fitzgerald into what the subtitle calls “a suburban comedy of manners.”
Though the author is a resident of the more upscale suburb of Bethesda (and wife of Washington Post Associate Editor Steve Coll), she’s experienced her share of carpooled gridlock on Route 355. In fact, the book was inspired by a Pike epiphany.
While out test-driving cars one day, the 44-year-old Coll says, “I felt like I needed a spiritual break.” At the intersection of the Pike, Viers Mill Road, and Route 28, Coll was drawn to the relative quiet of the cemetery at St. Mary’s Catholic Church, where she was stunned to discover the graves of the The Great Gatsby author and his wife, Zelda.
“It really took my breath away,” says Coll. “And then I looked across the street and saw a giant furniture store, and I just thought, There’s something here. It took me a while to figure out what it was.”
Coll looks at life on the Pike through the story of Jane and Leon Kramer, a dissatisfied young couple trying to keep the family business afloat, their goth son out of trouble, and each other out of the arms of strangers. Kramer’s Discount Furniture Depot is a low-rent enterprise, not quite like the Marlo that’s actually across from the Fitzgeralds’ resting place. It’s more like Sticks ’n’ Stuff.
Coll spent more than two years shopping—that is, researching a model for her characters’ business—before deciding that “Sticks ’n’ Stuff was the most amazing.” (Also amazing was that, after writing a subplot involving a line of Fitzgerald-inspired wicker patio furniture, Coll discovered that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s father had actually sold wicker furniture.)
In addition to shopping and rereading Fitzgerald, Coll drew on her life as a stay-at-home soccer mom for the harried, often isolated character of Jane. “In my neighborhood, it now seems like every mom is a lawyer at home raising kids. [There’s] a certain level of unfulfillment—but mingled with happiness and [the] privilege of being able to stay home and raise children. I know it’s the issue I dealt with.”
Coll also “wanted to capture the flavor of the soccerplex out there in Germantown, where I used to spend just about every Saturday since it was developed,” she explains. “The culture of soccer now is such a large part of life in Montgomery County….It’s like a moonscape of soccer fields.”
Rockville Pike contains its share of local references (Falls Road, Mid-Pike Plaza), but who outside of the MoCo seat will respond to the book’s title? Others were considered, but Coll and her editors at Simon & Schuster decided that “the idea of Rockville Pike as a universal metaphor for this kind of development” had legs.
The metaphor was made manifest following Coll’s family’s recent Christmas vacation in India. Wanting to show the kids rural India, the Colls drove to a town an hour outside of Delhi they’d visited about 10 years ago.
“[O]ur hosts were laughing at us,” says Coll. “And when I tried to explain to my kids why they were laughing at us, it seemed to be the equivalent of visiting Washington, D.C., and wanting to see how rural people lived by driving to Gaithersburg or Darnestown.”
As they journeyed along a road that had once been unpaved and full of cows, the view “was just like Rockville Pike,” Coll laughs. “All the way out…there were malls, Pizza Huts, just massive developments. It seems to be universal.”