The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout


Having loved Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge, I was excited to pick up her new book. The New England setting is once again an integral part of the story, this time in a small town in Maine. The narrator of the prologue gives us a brief description of the Burgess family history and tells the impetus for that narrator to write the story of the Burgess brothers. 

There are three children in the family: Jim, the oldest who becomes a well-known attorney, and the twins, Bob, an attorney who avoids the limelight of the courtroom and Susan who never leaves the increasingly depressed Shirley Falls. Their lives were affected by the death of their father in a terrible accident when they were children. When we meet them, the brothers live in New York, Park Slope specifically. Jim is relentlessly angry and ugly, calling his brother slob-dog and denegrating him at every turn. Bob is a pleasant, kind if schlubby guy. Susan calls with the news that her son, who has not thrived since the day he was born, threw a pig's head in the door of the mosque in town, for reasons that no one, least of all Zach, could explain.

Somalis had arrived in the town in significant numbers in the years before this incident; they and the townspeople coexisted uncomfortably. This crisis brought the brothers back to their home town and over the course of a year, family connections are up-ended, torn apart and put together in a new way. I must say the character of Jim is so overdrawn that some plot twists are too predictable. 

Elizabeth Strout is eloquent in conveying the difficulty for the Somalis to make new lives for themselves in this alien environment where they, even more than the locals, have few opportunities for work and feel very uncomfortable with the mores. She tells us about one man in particular, a cafe owner named Abdikarim Ahmed, a thoughtful and gentle person.

While I do recall Olive Kitteridge being an outspoken tough sort of person, her kindness and vulnerability was pretty easy to find. The mother of the three siblings in this book appeared to be Olive without the kindness and Susan who suffered her displeasure most, seems to have no joy in her life when we first meet her. Bob was the mother's favorite and he is the one most able to connect to other people.  For all their disfunction, they are ultimately there for each other. 

Elizabeth Strout, The Burgess Boys, Random House, 2013, 336 pages. I listened to the audiobook. The book is available at the UVa and public libraries and through Amazon.

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