Julie Langsdorf always saw herself as a writer. Even during the years when she was a stay-at-home mom in Potomac, Md., shuttling her children to and from activities, making school lunches and helping with homework. She might not have had success publishing her work, but writing was a part of her identity, so she kept at it.
“That’s what I did in the time that was my own,” she says. “I wrote.”
Now, at 55, with her two children grown, her work will finally — finally — reach the masses: “White Elephant” comes out Tuesday propelled by positive early reviews and a hefty first run.
Coincidence or not, Langsdorf’s success comes after leaving her longtime suburban existence. Following her 2012 divorce, Langsdorf moved to Adams Morgan in the District and devoted herself to writing while teaching yoga on the side. And yet, the book takes her back to that former life: “White Elephant” seems to channel all of the frustrations she felt juggling her identities as a mother and creator in a stifling suburb. The novel follows the residents of the fictional enclave of Willard Park — inspired, in part, by Langsdorf’s hometown of Kensington, Md. — where an interloper’s plans to build a McMansion amid the cozy bungalows leads to angry town halls, scandalous romantic dalliances and shady high jinks.
Like Langsdorf, two of the main characters in her ensemble are mothers grappling with their identities beyond being wives and mothers. Allison Miller, who has lived (mostly) happily in Willard Park for more than a decade, wonders what to do with her photography — more than a hobby, less than a career. Her new next-door neighbor, Kaye Cox, can’t figure out who to be, caught between her role as a fixture in her husband’s behemoth of a house and her own interest in interior decoration. These women and their author are well-acquainted with the eternal dilemma for parents, the pull between caregiving duties and other interests, professional and personal.
But with her children launched, Langsdorf had more time to focus on her own more-than-a-hobby. Not that the path to success was immediate.
“In the couple of years before the book came out, I stopped calling myself a writer and just called myself a yoga teacher,” she says over lunch at a hip restaurant in the Line hotel. “I’d been writing for so long without success that I was embarrassed.”
But all of those years in the suburbs — which was “not the best place for me,” she admits — offered plenty of material. “A lot of people live in the suburbs because it’s an easy place to live and feel safe,” she says, but we all know idyllic exteriors can be deceiving.
Willard Park sees uprooted trees, mysterious fires, angry altercations, and it’s all smart, satiric fun, the kind of comic novel that helps us see our own foibles while we’re laughing at those of others.
Langsdorf says earlier novels (“which are in various drawers”) were great practice for her, but she couldn’t have written this one until she had enough time and space. She started a draft of it in 2005, finishing a few years later.
“It didn’t sell at that time, and I thought the time for this book had come and gone,” she says. “When I picked it up again in 2017, we were in a very different era and these houses were all over the place.”
The story does feel perfectly timed, not just in terms of real estate booms, but in the way warring factions sprout up and become stubbornly entrenched. And yet, the comedy of it all softens the ominous undertones.
“We’re at a dark and contentious time in our country,” says Megan Lynch, Langsdorf’s editor at Ecco, “and we need things that help us escape . . . which, at the same time, aren’t pure escapism.”
Almost every neighborhood in the D.C. region has experienced a version of the changes in “White Elephant.” Even Adams Morgan: The Line hotel, for example, occupies a building that was once a church. Langsdorf laughs about some of the struggles she’s seen in her own building, hastening to add that her fellow co-op residents are all great neighbors.
The residents of Willard Park come to realize that houses matter less than their inhabitants — and that the suburbs aren’t for everyone. Langsdorf understands this, too; in her current existence she feels more herself. “My life is much more vibrant,” she says. “I love being able to walk everywhere, and I do have more time to write.”
But Langsdorf’s identity as a writer doesn’t change her affinity for being a parent. While she feels she has “regained something” with her professional success, she says “I love being a mother, too. We’re all adults, now, and my kids are artists, too. . . . We’re all working on our craft.”
Langsdorf is working on her second book with the help of a writers’ group that includes a number of other debut authors. Through attending one another’s events at bookstores, meeting for coffee and offering feedback on manuscripts, these colleagues make up a new community for a woman who wasn’t always sure how to find one.
Sipping a cup of green tea, Langsdorf considers her second novel. “I’m much more hopeful about this one’s progress, and that I’ll keep writing and publishing books now,” she says. “This feels very different.” Entirely at ease, she leans back and looks around the room, which is filled with an eclectic group of people, and says “Isn’t this place great?” Julie Langsdorf no longer lives in a house, but she’s definitely come home.
Bethanne Patrick is the editor, most recently, of “The Books That Changed My Life: Reflections by 100 Authors, Actors, Musicians and Other Remarkable People.”
By Julie Langsdorf
Ecco. 320 pp. $26.99.