Valyruh #CBR5 Review #96: The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout

This is the latest novel by the author of Pulitzer Prize winner “Olive Kitteridge,” and it is simply beautiful. It deals with adult sibling relations in a profoundly poignant way, with no heroes or villains but just plain folks in their forties and fifties who are suddenly forced to deal with all the failures, regrets, jealousies, and secrets that most of us bring with us into adulthood.

The emotional scars each of us carries forward from our childhood can define who we become, and Jim Burgess and his younger twins Bob and Susan carry more than most. Susan is an embittered and alienated divorcee with a strangely silent and moody 19-year-old son. They have never left the Burgess’ small hometown of Shirley Falls in Maine, and Susan fears the outside world as unknowable . Her twin Bob is divorced with no children, a Legal Aid attorney who lives in a shabby apartment in New York City and slogs through life with a crust of self-loathing while coming off to all who know him as big-hearted, if somewhat goofy. Big brother Jim is a high-powered defense attorney with a reputation, who also lives in New York with his wealthy Connecticut-born wife Helen and three children all away at college. Susan and Bob worship their older brother who people seem to naturally adore, but Jim wants little to do with Susan and treats Bob as an annoying pet.

When Susan’s son Zach confesses to throwing a frozen pig’s head into a mosque where a growing Somali immigrant community worships in Shirley Falls, already rising racial tensions in the small town are stoked to fever pitch, and it looks like Zach is going to be made an example of by local, state and possibly federal authorities looking to use a hate crime case to score political points. Jim and Bob offer their support to Susan and Zach, but inter-family stresses begin to surface and ripple outward, dramatically changing the long-held dynamic of the Burgess siblings. Their story is told against the backdrop of small-time life in Maine versus the cosmopolitan setting of New York, with the counterpoint of life in war-torn Somalia and of its refugees forced to survive in foreign settings.

There are so many layers in this book, that it is impossible to capture them all in a review. Suffice it to say that Strout’s writing is exquisite, her character portrayals profoundly nuanced, and her multi-layered story a compelling read that will linger with you long after you turn the last page.

Scootsa1000’s #CBR5 Review 22: Commencement by J. Courtney Sullivan

Unknown-1About a million books ago, during CBR3, I read and enjoyed a book called Maine, about Irish Catholics growing up in the Boston area and vacationing in Maine. It hit close to home for me, an Irish Catholic from the Boston area who frequently vacationed in Maine. It wasn’t great literature, but a quick read filled with realistic characters and some interesting perspective on all things Boston Irish (the Coconut Grove plot was enough to hook me). A few weeks ago at the library, there was a cute little display of “Beach Reads”, and I saw Commencement on the rack, Sullivan’s novel before Maine.

This was totally a beach read. There was sand stuck all up in the back book jacket and water stains all over the book. Seriously. It reeked of Bain Du Soleil. This book was well-loved by beach goers.

And it was fine for what it was.

Commencement tells the tale of four girls (Celia, an Irish Catholic from the Boston area; Sally, a rich private school girl from upscale Wellesley; April, an angry activist from Chicago; and Bree, a beautiful southern belle) who meet up as “first years” (never use the word FRESHMAN) at Smith College. They become best friends and their story is told via flashbacks intermingled with present day narration as they gather for Sally’s wedding, and later after a tragedy strikes.

Sullivan is a graduate of Smith, so I felt that her description of the day-to-day life at an all women’s school were pretty spot-on. Beautiful campus, quirky town, strong friendships, and lots and lots of self-discovery (politics, relationships, sexuality, etc).


I much preferred the in-college story to the out-of-college story. The subplot about April working for a radical feminist filmmaker that gets her into trouble was not for me.

Also, I am really, really tired of how so many books (I’m talking to you, Sarah Dessen) throw a date rape sub-plot into a story and then just kind of…let it disappear into thin air without any real resolution.

I think I’ll continue to read Sullivan’s future books (her new one comes out next week), because I like the Boston tie to them. They make me a little bit homesick, but in a good way.

You can read more of my reviews on my blog.