The Burgess Boys


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Haunted by the freak accident that killed their father when they were children, Jim and Bob Burgess escaped from their Maine hometown of Shirley Falls for New York City as soon as they possibly could. Jim, a sleek, successful corporate lawyer, has belittled his bighearted brother their whole lives, and Bob, a legal aid attorney who idolises Jim, has always taken it in his stride. But their long-standing dynamic is upended when their sister, Susan - the sibling who stayed behind - urgently calls them home. Her lonely teenage ...

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Apr 24, 2018

The Burgess Boys

Elizabeth Strout won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for her third novel, "Olive Kitteridge". My first reading of Strout was of this, her fourth novel, "The Burgess Boys" (2013).

Set in New York City and in a small fictitious town, Shirley Falls, Maine, much of the book revolves around family relationships and tensions. The "Burgess Boys", Jim and Bob, are both in their 50s and both are lawyers living in New York City. Jim, four years older than his brother, is Harvard-educated, aggressive and charismatic. He is married to the independently wealthy Helen and the couple have three children in college. Jim achieved fame by his success in securing an acquittal for his client in a notorious, highly publicized criminal case and went on to do white-collar defense criminal defense work for a large firm. His brother, Bob, drinks and smokes heavily. He is divorced, lives alone, and works as an appellate lawyer for Legal Aid. Bob has a twin sister, Susan, in Shirley Falls whose husband left her long before the story begins. Susan's son, a young adult, Zach, lives with her.

The novel pivots on an incident in which during Ramadan young Zach as a prank throws a bloody pig's head in a mosque maintained by Somali immigrants to the United States. There are tensions in Shirley Falls between the Somali people and the largely white and aging community. Zach is charged under State law with a misdemeanor, while the U.S. Attorney is investigating charging Zach with a much more serious civil rights violation and hate crime. In their different ways, Jim and Bob come to the assistance of their sister and their nephew in the town in which they had grown up and left behind many years earlier.

The relations between the two brothers and their sister turn on an event that had occurred with the twins were 4 and Jim 8. The father had left the three kids in the car parked on a hill and was killed in a freak accident when the car went out of brake and rolled down. Bob was in the front seat and apparently had been playing with the brakes. He and the family carry around with them the history that as a small boy Bob had caused the accident resulting in his father's death, leaving the mother alone to raise three children.

The book is at its best in setting out the family dynamics between Jim and Bob, the first competent and brilliant the second dumped-on. Strout also shows well how incidents from the past remain in life to haunt and control individuals and families. This part of the book is eloquently and thoughtfully done. Many readers will be moved to reflect on pivotal events from the past that have influenced their own lives in ways that might have been otherwise. Besides this important part of the novel, Strout writes beautifully in places, with an eye for telling details about life both in New York and in a small New England town.

I found more to dislike than to like in this novel. The book loses direction when it changes from a story of two brothers and a sister dealing with a long buried event from their past and becomes instead a problem novel. Strout loses focus on Jim, Bob, and Susan as persons to talk about issues. The characters quickly become stereotyped and uninteresting. Rather than focusing on individual lives, the book talks about "issues" -- the problem facing baby-boomers when their dreams remain unrealized, living with an "empty nest", the difficulty many Americans face in accepting immigrants and with continued religious and racial distrust, falling out of love, sexual wandering and sexual harassment, the differences between city life and small town life, and many more. The book discusses "issues", not primarily persons. The scenes have the feel of contrivance with the characters having little intrinsic interest beyond vehicles for discussion of other things.

The book also is weakened by too many characters and too many rather facile changes of perspective. It becomes slow, confusing, and overly-broad in scope. Too many of the themes have little to do with the family dynamics that seem to be at the center of the story.

While it offers fine writing and a considerable degree of insight, the book is overly topical in its focus. It is a more literate version of a television show, perhaps. The novel is overly adapted for book group use (questions for discussion are included) with the many issues it holds out for discussion and its too extensive editorializing about various social issues in the contemporary United States.

With recognition of its good qualities, I found myself thoroughly disliking this novel on balance. I did not find it a pleasure to read. The contrivances of the story ultimately worked against serious personal reflection.

Robin Friedman

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