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White Elephant

Review

White Elephant

Suburban drama, mid-life crises and discontent dominate WHITE ELEPHANT. Nick and Kaye Cox, transplants from the South, have recently moved to Willard Park, a quiet town outside of Washington, D.C. filled with original Sears model homes from the early 1900s. Nick is a developer who views Willard Park as a town he can reinvent with mammoth houses and a redesigned town center. After completing his own colossal home and moving his family in, he begins work on a second, similarly large house that the neighbors nickname the White Elephant.

Midway through the building of the White Elephant, Nick slowly comes to realize that he may have misjudged the town as the property stays on the market and faces a financial crunch, halting construction on the home. Attempting to beautify the lot and encourage buyers, Nick cuts down a red maple that his neighbors, Ted and Allison Miller, planted in honor of their teenage daughter the year she was born. Ted views the destruction of the tree as the last straw in Nick’s efforts to ruin the town, and Willard Park becomes a battleground with neighbors pitted against each other in their pursuit of the definition of an ideal town. Trees continue to be destroyed by an unknown vandal, and the residents of Willard Park spiral out of control.

"While the tone is more serious, Langsdorf does infuse humor into her tale.... Entertaining and thought-provoking, WHITE ELEPHANT tackles some interesting issues..."

Gentrification is impacting neighborhoods, towns and suburbs across the country today, and WHITE ELEPHANT focuses on the issue of tearing down small houses to build newer, larger ones. While Julie Langsdorf presents both sides of the debate, the drama unfolding in Willard Park is extreme. The homes are either quite small or gigantic with no middle ground, which feels unnecessarily exaggerated and avoids the tough questions that arise when the issues are less clearcut.

The novel contains a large cast of characters, and almost every one of them is unhappy. While a well-written tale relies on drama and conflict, both of which are present here, the lack of any likable or content individuals seems unrealistic and forced. The chaos caused by the building of the White Elephant and the tree destruction exposes an unpleasant group of residents that engender neither sympathy nor patience. Instead, each resident is more discontented than the last, and everyone seems quite self-absorbed and dissatisfied.

While the tone is more serious, Langsdorf does infuse humor into her tale. The local café owner, Lucy, capitalizes on the tree fight by creating Deforestation Decaf and Leave ’Em Standing Lattes, and adding a gargantuan-sized drink called the White Elephant. In an effort to demonstrate support for each side, yard signs are created by both groups, leading the local realtor to bemoan that “[i]t’s a little hard to sell houses when the town looks like the outside of a polling station.” The humor helps soften the book’s mood a bit, but most readers will be left feeling thankful that they do not live in Willard Park.

Entertaining and thought-provoking, WHITE ELEPHANT tackles some interesting issues but may fail to resonate with those who are annoyed by an overabundance of dysfunction and self-absorbed characters.

Reviewed by Cindy Burnett on April 5, 2019

White Elephant
by Julie Langsdorf

  • Publication Date: March 26, 2019
  • Genres: Fiction, Women's Fiction
  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Ecco
  • ISBN-10: 0062857754
  • ISBN-13: 9780062857750