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.

Owlcat’s #CBRV Review #10 of The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout

This is a story about two adult brothers, a sister who is the twin of one of the brothers, and the relationship of all three as they meander somewhat helplessly through a maze of family history. When the story begins, Susan, the divorced sister, lives in Maine, in the small town where they all grew up.  Both Jim and Bob, the Burgess brothers, are lawyers living in New York City;  Jim is wealthy, partly due to his marriage and partly due to his high profile lawyering, a successful lawyer who relies on his reputation, seemingly happy, self-confident, and contemptuous of his brother, whom he not-so-lovingly refers to as “Slob-dog.”  The incessant belittling got on my nerves.  Bob, on the other hand is low-keyed, somewhat self-contemptuous, and a liberal who works for a legal aid society;  he remains good friends with his divorced wife, Pam. He is basically the conscience of the story but that’s not totally apparent until the end of the novel. Among the siblings is an unwritten rule that no one will speak of the tragedy that occurred when the twins were four and Jim was eight, when Bob disengaged the family car’s gears and rolled over their father, killing him.

The catalyst for the story is Zach, the sister’s 19-year old rather hapless son who commits what the government may decide is a hate crime when he mindlessly throws a pig’s head into a mosque of Somali refugees who have lived in the small Maine mill town for some time but have yet to truly assimilate. As a result of his act, when Susan learns from her son that he is the perpetrator, she reaches out to her brothers, to help with his turning himself in and the resulting legal implications and complications.  Neither Bob nor Jim likes being back in Maine;  each relates better to society in NYC.  What occurs among the siblings in Maine returns to the childish animosities, disputes, and jealousies, in other words, family life as it was when they were growing up.  We see glimpses of their childhood through vague references, in particular their mother’s inability to nurture Susan and the mother’s over-protectiveness of Bob after his accident.  Jim was always the one who would succeed, though.

I found the first three-quarters of the book the most interesting because it told not only the siblings’ stories but also included some individual stories of Somali refugees living in Maine and their reactions to both the incident itself (a Somali child in the mosque at the time it occurred fainted), the distrust and suspicions on both sides, and the realization by one Somali leader that Zach, as he watched him in the initial court proceeding, really was just an uninformed kid who had to understanding of the significance of what he had done, that he really had thought it was “just a joke,” and this leader’s ability to thereby accept and forgive him. There were the townspeople, the police chief, and the lawyers each trying to make sense of the situation, some trying to make it beneficial to themselves, and others truly wanting to help both Zach and his family and the Somali refugees.

I expected more from the story about Zach, in fact, thinking we would get to see him perhaps interact with others more and not be the sad character he was.  Instead, the author has him run away to his father in Sweden where we then see only glimpses of him that his mother sees. His fear sent him there but it gave him an opportunity to mature and develop away from her and her issues.  I was glad he developed into a more realistic character but was sorry we didn’t get to see the process, which is only alluded to.

What we did get to see in the latter part of the book was a reversal of roles between Bob and Jim, the direct result in Bob’s case of Jim’s revealing something from their past.  At first Bob was angry but then goes through a series of developments, coming out of the situation with a better understanding of Jim, himself, and his family in general.  He feels more worthy and begins to appreciate himself and his life more, adding things to make himself happier.  In the meantime, partially as a result of his revelation, but also because he gets caught in self-destructive behavior, Jim’s role turns into one of the underdog, needing Bob’s acceptance, losing his wife and job, and slowly sinking into a depressed, sad caricature of what he used to be.

This is a complex novel, very character driven and very interesting, but I felt it lost its momentum once Zach went to Sweden and once Jim and Bob began to dance around each other in trying to sort out the family hostilities and anger.  I’m not sure I believed the fact that all three of the siblings changed (Susan as a result of Zach’s decision to go to Sweden without telling her), or that it would be quite so dramatic.  At some points, it felt tedious and whiny, particularly Jim’s wife’s reactions to things and his own.  Maybe I’m just cynical.

I think the book is good and worth reading but I did find myself wishing we had spent more time on the Somali story;  maybe her next novel could be about one of those characters.  Again I’m wishing there were a category to check that would be a half-star between 2 and 3 stars. I will go with “a good book.”