Residents of a self-consciously quaint Washington, D.C., suburb end up at war when a wealthy family moves in.
"One couldn't, in all honesty, accuse Nick Cox of starting the 'big house' craze in Willard Park. The tearing down and building up had started long before he moved in....Now houses wrapped in shimmering Tyvek slips were a common sight. Latino gardeners spilled out of trucks in the springtime along with wheelbarrows full of mulch and trees with round, burlap bottoms." Langsdorf's debut social satire gets off to a promising start, laying out the tensions in a town on the cusp of change through the conflicts simmering on one block of Tunlaw Place. At its center are Ted and Allison, a nice couple who've lived in Willard Park for almost 14 years. Their problems were no worse than the usual dull marriage/adolescent daughter scenario until the philistines arrived, building a castle on one side of them and a mammoth spec house—the titular "white elephant"—on the other. As the town divides bitterly over a proposed building moratorium, a mysterious tree murderer hits the streets with a chainsaw, ravaging the arboreal population. Langsdorf's not-too-endearing cast includes several villains (two bullies and one pot smoker), a couple of saints (tree-hugger Ted and his intellectually disabled twin), and two central female characters who should be easier to keep straight than they are. An almost Shirley Jackson–esque view of human nature emerges when the bulletin board at the local cafe spontaneously blooms with tattletale notes: "Melanie Frank said her black walnut trees are 'not worth the trouble'." "Ana Lopez cheats on her taxes." "Antoine Beignet has a second family in Toledo." After a surprisingly cruel climax, a cleanup chapter can't quite make the skies blue again.
A dark comedy with more darkness than comedy.