Susan Coll’s The Stager is a wry and witty dark comedy about real estate, marriage, friendship, and modern life in upper middle class suburbia.
The Story: Coll sets her tale in affluent Bethesda, Maryland, where a professional “stager” has been hired to help prepare a house for sale. A stager depersonalizes and redecorates a house so that buyers can better imagine themselves in the home. In this case, the stager realizes that she has a tangled personal history with the owner of the house—a successful and beautiful woman named Bella. Bella, a hot shot vice president at a major investment bank, lives in the home with her husband Lars, a former tennis star turned emotional basket case, and their daughter Elsa . . . who may or may not be the biological daughter of Lars, given Bella’s rather loose definition of marital fidelity. The stager, although she knows she should refuse this particular job on the grounds of her complicated past with Bella, finds herself unable to walk away. Meanwhile, the house itself is emitting a terrible, unexplainable smell . . .
My Thoughts: The Stager is an amusing and often delicious read. I’m originally from the DC suburbs, and I appreciated the sharp satire about real estate and life in the pockets of affluence outside the city (although much of this satire could be applied just as easily to other suburban areas in the country). I loved the sections about The Unfurlings, a planned hippie community of million dollar homes, now abandoned and a place for squatters and growers of a suspiciously relaxing “compost tea.”
The novel is well-written, inventive, and clever . . . Very, very clever. In fact, in some ways, it is a touch TOO clever. Coll lost me a bit when Lars—the washed-up former tennis star--develops an omniscient point of view and then proceeds to hold long, meandering conversations with his daughter’s pet rabbit. Some of that, for me, felt a little too gimmicky. The main plot lines about Bella and her dysfunctional relationships with her husband and her former best friend would have been enough for me. In fact, I would have preferred those to be explored more deeply without all of the antics about the talking rabbit.
Nevertheless, I found The Stager to be quite an entertaining read. I would rate it about a 3.75 out of 5 stars, so we'll round that up to a 4. I haven’t read a Susan Coll novel before, and I’d like to read some of her other books; The Stager is her fifth novel. Coll is the events and programs director at DC’s famed Politics & Prose bookstore.
I received an ARC of this book from the publisher, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, in return for an honest review.