Sunday, June 2, 2013

The Burgess Boys, by Elizabeth Strout

Of the three Burgess siblings--older brother Jim and younger twins Bob and Susan--only Susan still lives in their rather sad hometown of Shirley Falls, Maine. Jim is a high-powered criminal attorney in Manhattan, who became famous by successfully defending a soul singer accused of killing his girlfriend. He is married to a wealthy woman, and they live in  beautiful brownstone in Park Slope. Bob, also an attorney, couldn't take the stress of the courtroom and now does appeals work, also in New York City. Bob lives with the guilt of having accidentally killed their father when he was four years old; that guilt allows him to accept the verbal abuse that Jim heaps on him in the guise of brotherly kidding. Susan works in an optical shop and lives with her 19-year-old son Zach, who has never been "quite right."

When Susan calls to say that Zach threw a pig's head into the mosque of Shirley Falls growing Somali community, Bob rushes to Maine to help her, while Jim and his wife head off on a vacation with the managing partner in Jim's firm. Bob, however, does not handle matters in Shirley Falls well, and Jim becomes increasingly angry as he tracks events from his hotel room. As Zach's case progresses, Jim's rage grows while Bob, Susan, and Zach begin fighting their way through to a more positive place. Perspective shifts among Bob, Susan, Jim, Jim's wife Helen, Bob's ex-wife Pam, and a leader in the Somali community, Abdikarim Ahmed.

The Burgess Boys does have one oddity that I cannot figure out. In a prologue, a woman and her mother mend their relationship by talking about the Burgess kids. Then, when they read about the pig's head incident in the paper, the younger woman decides to write the Burgesses' story--and the book begins. What did Strout feel this prologue added to the book? I expected to return to these two "characters" in an epilogue, but they simply disappear. Wondering . . .

Despite this oddity, I enjoyed The Burgess Boys--it's not as innovative as Olive Kittredge, but it is a complicated and moving look at how members of a family experience their shared lives differently, how they hurt and heal each other--and it manages to end on a hopeful note. As is always the case with Strout, she conveys a sense of place beautifully--her descriptions make Shirley Falls and specific locations in New York feel familiar. While the immigration theme could be more fully developed, it nonetheless adds dimension to the story, which might otherwise have been too narrowly focused within the Burgess family.

Favorite passages:
The colors of Central Park were quietly fall-like: the grass a faded green and the red oaks bronzed, the lindens changing to gentle yellow, the sugar maples losing their orangey leave, one floating here, another falling there, but the sky as very blue and the air warm enough that the windows of the Boathouse were still open at this late afternoon hour, the striped awnings extending over the water.

Pam replied that she was too old to worry about being cool, but in fact she did worry about it, and that's one reason it was always nice to see Bobby, who was so uncool as to inhabit--in Pam's mind--his own private condominium of coolness.

She had entered (most likely long ago) some territory of danger where her life would rattle with unraveling; her husband would leave her, her son would leave, hope itself would leave, casting her so far outside the boundaries of ordinary life that she roamed the land of the unspeakably lonely whose presence society could not abide.

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