‘The Stager’ finds hilarity and touching moments in satire on local real estate

July 3, 2014
the stager

By Susan Coll

Sarah Crichton/FSG. 272 pp. $26

THE STAGER

By Susan Coll

Sarah Crichton/FSG. 272 pp. $26

"The Stager" by Susan Coll (Sarah Crichton/Sarah Crichton)

In “The Stager,” Susan Coll writes about her home town with an insider’s hilarious, mocking affection. And since she happens to live in Washington, the amusement will be especially delicious to local readers.

This is not the first time Coll has poked fun at the D.C. scene. In“Beach Week,” she found dark comedy in the antics surrounding the vacation of affluent suburban Washington high-schoolers; in “Rockville Pike,” she satirized the life of a middle-aged mom who runs a store you know where.

This time, Coll unleashes her wit on the D.C. real-estate scene, a subject so absurd these days that it seems almost to mock itself.

The couple at the center of the story are Lars and Bella Jorgenson: Lars is a former tennis star who has turned into a chubby prescription-pill popper; Bella is beautiful, successful — and adulterous. Elsa, their bright but very unhappy fifth-grader, doesn’t want to move to London, where her parents plan to relocate.

Unable to sell their faux-Flemish house in a tony Maryland suburb, Lars and Bella hire Eve, who works as a stager. The stager’s job — for those unfamiliar with this important player in the real-estate game — is to make property look more inviting and salable and less as if it belongs to the people who own it.

While the couple are in London, Eve — who happens to be Bella’s former best friend — is painting, cleaning and trying desperately to get rid of a mysterious bad smell. Lars and Bella have left Elsa behind with the nanny, and Elsa’s rabbit, Dominique, has gone missing.

Coll reveals her characters’ foibles in chapters that alternate perspectives — including that of the rabbit. We learn what ended the friendship between Eve and Bella, and we watch as Bella manipulates Lars (she and his doctor are continually offering him more pills).

As the story unfolds, Coll throws accurately placed word darts at many capital-region targets: McMansions, workaholics, foreign-born nannies, psychiatrists — even cupcakes.

Though “The Stager” is satirical, it is also touching, largely because of Lars, whose medication-scrambled brain becomes the author’s vehicle for musing on the nature of what makes a story. His main drug, Praxisis, has him meditating on what happens when a narrator goes rogue. He “hears” conversations between Bella and other people and Dominique, the rabbit, who sometimes seems to be the smartest character of all.

Throughout this antic tale, Coll (who is events and programs director at Politics & Prose Bookstore) shows us what happens to people when they don’t feel heard or seen, when they wind up walking around as human versions of a house that’s been carefully denuded of the things that made it warm and welcoming — that made it a home.

Klam’s books include “Please Excuse My Daughter,” “You Had Me at Woof” and “Friendkeeping.”

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