Tuesday, June 25, 2013
The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout
Published March 2013 by Random House Publishing Group
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher in exchange for this review
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 idolizes Jim, has always taken it in stride. But their long-standing dynamic is upended when their sister, Susan—the Burgess sibling who stayed behind—urgently calls them home. Her lonely teenage son, Zach, has gotten himself into a world of trouble, and Susan desperately needs their help. And so the Burgess brothers return to the landscape of their childhood, where the long-buried tensions that have shaped and shadowed their relationship begin to surface in unexpected ways that will change them forever.
Elizabeth Strout has an uncanny ability to make readers care about characters that aren't terribly likable. The Burgess boys and their sister, Susan, are none of them people I can imagine wanting to spend any time with; even changes in them throughout the book can't change that. Still, by slowly revealing their histories and delving deeper into their psyches, Strout makes each of them, as well as Zach and Jim's wife, Helen, people readers can understand and care about. And by "care about," I don't necessarily mean that you'll hope for the best for them.
Young Zach has gotten himself into that world of trouble by rolling a pig's head into the local mosque, spiritual home to Shirley Falls' immigrant population of Somali. The indigenous population of Shirley Falls has not been very welcoming to their new neighbors yet are quick to judge Zach and his mother. Strout uses this scenario to explore the immigrant issue and our own hypocrisy but does it with care, making sure to fully explore all sides of the issue.
Several years ago, the Omaha Bookworms read Strout's Olive Kitteredge and I was impressed by her ability to convey emotion and mood. Here, once again, she impresses:
"He sat with just his eyes moving about the room. The drawn blinds were the color of hard-boiled eggs. The wallpaper was a similar color, with a series of swooping long-beaked birds that were thin and blue. There was a wooden hutch that had Reader's Digest Condensed Books along its top shelf. There was a wing chair in the corner with its arms worn so the upholstery had rips. Nothing in the room seemed designed for comfort, and he felt comfortless."
"The nurse who handed her Zachary must have assumed that Susan was weeping with joy, but Susan was weeping at the sight of him: skinny, wet, blotchy, his eyes closed. He was not her little girl. She panicked at the thought she might never forgive him for this."
It was five years between Pulitzer Prize-winning Olive Kitteredge and The Burgess Boys. It was worth the wait. I only hope it doesn't take five years for Strout to write her next novel!