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.

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Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #75: And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini

And the Mountains Echoed is arguably Hosseini’s finest novel to date, a sweeping saga that extends beyond the confines of his native Afghanistan and touches on the universal issues surrounding parental and sibling relationships under the strain of economic hardship, geographic dislocation, and sacrifice. Hosseini’s novel begins with a poor father telling his son and daughter a beautiful folk tale about a man forced to sacrifice one of his children to a demon for the good of his village. That tale has a happy ending, but the next day, the father gives up his daughter to a wealthy family in the city of Kabul in order to ensure that his own family will survive the winter, threatening a unique bond between sister and brother which somehow manages to endure—almost mystically–over space and time.

Hosseini follows both families—the original one and the adoptive one—over generations, with multiple spin-offs as more and more fascinating characters and their backstories are introduced. We skip backwards and forwards across time; we skip across oceans to Greece, France, and the U.S., and back again to Afghanistan; and we hear—in first and third person, sometimes as narration, sometimes as journal entries, sometimes as an epistolary—how both men and women have been affected by the dramatic changes in their home country.

Once again, the plight of Afghani women is treated by author Hosseini with tremendous sympathy and, more importantly, with genuine authenticity, but in this novel, unlike in his awesome A Thousand Splendid Suns, Hosseini gives the reader a more nuanced reading into the minds and souls of his characters, male as well as female. They are neither victims nor perpetrators, but real people with choices to make and consequences to face.  Yes, there is tragedy on both a large and small scale, but Hosseini’s exquisite writing enables his readers to profoundly share in the lives of his characters and come out the stronger for it.