By Susan Coll
Sarah Crichton Books 288 pp.
Review by Trish Kim
When I saw the title of Susan Coll’s new novel, The Stager, I thought, “Well, this is required reading!” And when I saw that the story is set in Bethesda, Md., my own back yard, I could see I had no choice, since I am a stager in the Washington area.
I was a little skeptical, since very few people, famous authors included, know anything about our industry and even less about Accredited Staging Professional Masters, the designation I hold. But I relaxed when I saw in Coll’s acknowledgments that one source for her facts was Staging to Sell by Barb Schwarz, my personal friend and mentor who founded the International Association of Home Staging Professionals. So I felt right at home, no pun intended, and began to read with confidence.
I am immediately struck with Coll’s writing style and love it. It reminds me of the late English author Stella Gibbons, with a modern twist. The humor is rampant, droll, and both dark and light. The quirky characters are well-constructed and their qualities and inner thoughts well-described in their own words, and one really feels connected to each of them.
The Stager’s story line is a familiar one in my profession. A seller is moving for professional reasons, and the Realtor brings in Eve, a professional stager, to make the house more “buyer friendly” and give it the “wow factor” lacking in most homes. The goal of staging is to sell homes faster and for more money.
Since this an occupied home, Eve touches every room and is necessarily up-close-and-personal with the family, so the relationship is very intimate for a few days. In my personal staging business, the project is done in one or, at the most, two days, so it was interesting to see Eve in and out over a longer period of time. In this story, that extended time period makes for some interesting interaction with the household.
Eve arrives late in speaking for herself, and I was beginning to wonder when she would actually show up and have her say. I liked her best of all the adult characters and understood her well from an industry perspective. Her position, professionally speaking, is challenging, to say the least. A previous and very intimate relationship with Bella, the owner of the house to be staged, ends in very tragic and contentious circumstances. Eve must avoid the household’s adults, who would be less than welcoming if they were aware of her presence. This is tricky, of course, but made less so by the fact that the owners are away traveling during part of the project.
I’m happy to say I’ve never had to deal with Eve’s circumstances. However, the description of her approach to staging is accurate, down to the depersonalization of the property and the ferreting out of offending odors. A disclaimer: Depersonalization doesn’t include stealing items to achieve the “look.”
The most charming and compelling character is Elsa, the only child in the novel. Her thoughts and actions are intelligent, funny, and spontaneous, responding to the adults around her with a display of loyalty and maturity lacking in the grown-ups.
The novel’s non-human character, a pet rabbit named Dominique, was a close second to Elsa in my affections. Dominique disappears as the staging project commences, causing a lot of anxiety for all the characters, but especially Elsa. His absence and the search for him is a continuing theme throughout. The rabbit stands out, as does Elsa, as seemingly saner than the rest of the family. Witness his very interesting and convoluted “conversation” with Lars, the drug-infused husband, father, owner.
Coll is now on my short list of favorite authors. I must go back and read the previous novels for which she is already well-known and will continue to follow her career and work. It’s a big plus for me that she’s a local writer and that we share a knowledge of the staging industry. But for anyone else in the reading world, just read The Stager for fun.
Trish Kim is president of the International Association of Home Staging Professionals and CEO of Staged Interior in Chantilly, Va.
Copyright © 2014 Mid-Atlantic Litter Cleanup Service