Novels to Read While the Housing Market Plummets

Tired of watching my retirement savings go up in smoke, I decided to see how the value of my house has been holding up. Big mistake. According to the addictive, ulcer-inducing Web site zillow.com, my little Cape Cod in Bethesda declined by $46,000. In the last 30 days. That's more than I paid for my first house. I probably lost a few hundred dollars just in the time it took me to write that sentence. Of course, this calamity was all too predictable. We came into the D.C. market in 2005, when cash-laden buyers had to waive the right to inspection (and sanity). Multiple bids created frenzied auctions around every sale. We finally bought our house over the Internet without seeing it first. (An incredulous friend told me, "Ron, you wouldn't buy a pair of shoes over the Internet!"). Until salvation arrives, here's a list of great novels about real estate disasters to take our minds off the neighborhood pain:

1. Stephen Amidon's "Human Capital" (2004). Desperate to prop up his failing real estate business, an affable man leverages everything to buy into a mysterious hedge fund. A thrilling examination of suburban angst.

2. Steven Millhauser's "Martin Dressler" (1996). Millhauser won a Pulitzer Prize for this haunting novel about an entrepreneur in the late 19th century who tries to create a New York hotel commensurate with his dreams. His final project is a spectacular 30-story extravaganza that's a whole world in itself. Irrational exuberance follows.

3. Jane Smiley's "Good Faith" (2003). A normally prudent real estate agent gets led astray by dreams of hitting it rich in the 1980s. Psst: Wanna buy a thousand acres?


4. Tom Wolfe's "A Man in Full" (1998). This boisterous novel tells the story of Atlanta's most successful real-estate developer and his faltering efforts to maintain his kingdom amid racial, sexual and financial crises.

5. Whitney Terrell's "The King of Kings County" (2005). Terrell is the youngest and least known of these authors, but his novel is a brilliant portrayal of the confluence of federal funding, state zoning, racial repression and local shenanigans that created vast suburbs in the mid 20th century. He conveys all this national upheaval in the sensitive story of a young man looking back at his father's boundless, dangerous enthusiasm.

In case we don't run into each other in debtor's prison, leave your suggestions for other great novels (or memoirs) on financial troubles here.

-- Ron Charles

By Christian Pelusi |  January 31, 2008; 11:04 AM ET Fiction , Ron Charles
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I would submit any Dickens novel, or for that matter, most 19th century British literature. In that class-entrenched society, money is practically a character itself in these novels.

Consider: In "David Copperfield," one character and his family go off to debtor's prison while a pre-teen David has to figure out how to live. "Vanity Fair" details the financial downturn of Amelia's family as well as Becky Sharp's rise in fortunes.

I know there are others -- those are the first that come to mind.

Posted by: KLeewrite | January 31, 2008 11:44 AM

There's always "The House of Sand and Fog" by Andre Dumas. Everyone looses in this real estate venture.

Posted by: Balti | January 31, 2008 1:04 PM

I vote for Jonathan Franzen's "The Corrections," which documents the demise of an American family alongside the demise of the American economic culture. Can there be anything so grim, cynical and instructive all at once?

And I also applaud the choice of Andre Dubus's "House of Sand and Fog."

My all time favorites of economic novels, though, are by Dreiser. Yes, by God, Dreiser wrote about class and the economy and (sure) real estate, too. Top "Sister Carrie" or "Of Human Bondage" for their lessons about just those things. (The Waldorf! The mansions! The homeless queuing for bread!) Well, okay, here's another novel that DOES, in fact, trump them: "The Great Gatsby."

Posted by: Marie Arana | January 31, 2008 11:40 PM

I second the Dickens vote, and add John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath.

Posted by: Sharon | February 1, 2008 10:47 AM

Compared to last year the Bethesda market is down 6-10%. It seems a lot of houses in Bethesda that come on the market are priced at 5-10% over last year's inflated prices with no takers. Reality is starting to set in though as after sitting on the market for 2-3 months without selling, prices are now starting to be revised downward. Bethesda is still a great place to sell as the buyers are out there. Greedy sellers need to be realistic and price the house around 6-10% below last year's prices. For anyone buying now, it will take 3-5 years for this market to start to recover. We are now also starting to see foreclosures in Bethesda and a bunch of recent houses that have sold have sold for 10-15% off the original asking price. What do you expect with 5-7 years of compounded annual increases of 10-15% in housing prices!?

Posted by: Bethesda Agent | February 1, 2008 4:45 PM

Just thought of another one that made a big impression on me: "The Rise of Silas Lapham" (1884) by William Dean Howells. His reputation has faded considerably over the years, but this novel is still interesting and (quietly) moving. It's about a small-time paint manufacturer whose business takes off and starts to earn more money than he knows what to do with. Hoping to impress Boston society, he begins building the city's most lavish house. But his business luck turns, and the mansion becomes an unsustainable burden.

Posted by: Ron Charles | February 3, 2008 10:40 AM

A neglected book but aptly titled, Trollope's "The Way We Live Now" is at once a snapshot of Victorian England and the ageless theme of unbridled financial speculation and it affect on society and the individual.

Posted by: babbittsbooks | February 3, 2008 11:01 AM

I see the Bethesda Agent agent mentions "what do you expect?" in reference to the 10-15% gains over 5-7 years. Why are real estate agents saying this now? 2 years ago, realtors were all about saying we could still expect normal increases in property values. I never once heard a realtor say anything to the contrary, but then why would you? Realtors are really only glorified salesmen/women. If they were professionals, they would have, in good and professional conscience looking out for the best interests of their client, refused to sell properties that they secretly knew and believed were 20-30% above their real value. How could RE agents consciously go along with selling homes to people who clearly could not afford it? I now count all realtors and lawyers as among the lowest of professions. What good does a license do for real estate agents anyway? A license to sell your financial life away? Unless ethics makes it way back into American business and Congressional leadership, we will continue to proceed down the road of a trillion dollar national debt, a weakening dollar, and the few taking advantage of the shrinking middle class and expanding poor class. I predict in 100 years, English will not be the language for business - Chinese will be.

Posted by: Just a Guy Who Now Hates Realtors | February 6, 2008 10:12 AM

Isn't this blog supposed to be about books?

Posted by: KLeewrite | February 6, 2008 11:17 AM

This article is very timely. The housing declining is now starting to affect upper Northwest and close-in Bethesda and Chevy Chase neighborhoods. Buyers are no longer buying properties at inflated prices. The houses that are currently selling are houses that are priced at 2004-2005 prices.

Posted by: AU Park | February 6, 2008 8:47 PM

Yes, House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III is the quintessential book about hearth and home. There is also A Sudden Country by Karen Fisher. It's the story of Lucy, forced to leave her comfortable home and set out on the Oregon Trail in search of an uncertain homestead without even the Internet to guide her.

Posted by: Amy MacKinnon | February 8, 2008 8:44 AM

Yes, "House of Sand and Fog" is the penultimate real estate book -- but read it at your own risk. I was devastated by the book, which was so beautifully written that the tragedies were that much more awful.

Then there's "Anna and the King of Siam" by Margaret Landon -- a widow who went to a foreign country with the promise of a home and was given only a room at the palace.

Posted by: Chris | February 9, 2008 11:00 AM

Yes, "House of Sand and Fog" is the penultimate real estate book -- but read it at your own risk. I was devastated by the book, which was so beautifully written that the tragedies were that much more awful.

Then there's "Anna and the King of Siam" by Margaret Landon -- a widow who went to a foreign country with the promise of a home.

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