When I’m searching for effortless entertainment, I often turn to my hometown’s Facebook group. I can’t help but feel like I’m scrolling through satire, an Onion-esque portrayal of affluent white people with nothing better to do than complain about potholes and playgrounds. Often, I wish that I could insert myself into their lives, to see where these woes originate, and why these people are so petty and angry and annoyed with the world. Julie Langsdorf’s debut novel, “White Elephant,” gives you the opportunity to do just that.
Willard Park is your typical upper-middle class suburb. It has tree-lined streets, Halloween parades, a quaint local café that all the neighbors flock to and a culture of forced politeness used to conceal rage and envy. The titular “White Elephant” is a gaudy mansion built by newcomer Nick Cox, a real estate developer who has big dreams for the town and, thus, some big enemies.
Langsdorf perfectly captures the contrived nature of a “neighborly” suburb, weaving in and out through her characters’ own thoughts and, more importantly, how others think of them. There is a whiff of dramatic irony involved, as readers gradually figure out the book’s conflicts and controversies — the affairs, the fires and the mutilated trees — way before the people they’re reading about.
The most satisfying tactic that Langsdorf exercises throughout the book is the constant switching between the thoughts and troubles of both the tweens and adults of the book. Spoiler alert: They’re pretty much the same. Does that boy like me? Do I like him? Should I like him? Why doesn’t anybody like me? Why doesn’t anybody understand me? What seems like a peak into a 12-year-old’s diary is really an examination about how those feelings never really go away, and how in adult life they may lead to much more dire consequences.
Given the title, I was led to believe that this ominous “White Elephant” would be a more central character in the novel, and it certainly was in the end. Yet as I discovered early in the novel, the “elephant in the room” not a physical one, but rather the secrets that these residents are keeping from one another. That does not mean that this is a gossip novel, though. Langsdorf crafts a novel that’s part-mystery, part-comedy and part-drama, all wrapped up in beautiful mix of humor and tension.
That’s not to say this book works on universal experiences, though. Langsdorf’s book is most accessible to the exact people she is writing about: Sexually-repressed suburbia-dwellers with the time and money to care about trees and hosting guests. Langsdorf’s characters don’t have too many problems — an overbearing mother here, a bratty daughter there — but the way they deal with these first-world issues is too chaotic to pass up.
The trials and tumults of suburbia is never the most interesting topic to examine; growing up in suburban New Jersey, this is something I fully understand. Yet the suburbs are an incredible anthropological study, one that musicians, filmmakers and novelists alike have recognized and taken advantage of. Everything has an aside: Financial stability (but too much money makes you an outcast), mothers and fathers who are still together (but their lackluster sex drive is driving them apart), the ultimate neighborhood experience (but that comes with pettiness and town halls). It is pathetic, it is discouraging, it is absolutely delicious. Through Langsdorf’s words, one can’t help but willfully crawl back into the deranged suburb that they came from.