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.
With a rare combination of brilliant storytelling, exquisite prose, and remarkable insight into character, Elizabeth Strout has brought to life two deeply human protagonists whose struggles and triumphs will resonate with readers long after they turn the final page. Tender, tough-minded, loving, and deeply illuminating about the ties that bind us to family and home, The Burgess Boys is Elizabeth Strout’s newest and perhaps most astonishing work of literary art.
***** Review *****
Three siblings: Jim and twins Bob and Susan. They’ve lived their entire lives on eggshells following the tragedy that killed their father. They all carry blame and guilt, and they wear the most intricate masks I’ve ever seen among sibling characters.
The Burgess kids had a hold on her, I think, as a result of the fact that all three had suffered publicly, and also my mother had taught them years before in her fourth-grade Sunday school class.
The story of the Burgess Boys is told from a hometown local. The Burgess kids had always had a grip on her and her mother, and always surfaced in their conversations. The way this was described reminded me of the reminiscing of older generations – the telling of stories and memories.
“People will say it’s not nice to write about people I know.”
My mother was tired that night. She yawned. “Well, you don’t know them,” she said. “Nobody ever knows anyone.”
That sentiment cannot be more true. Despite growing up with such a sad circumstance haunting them, it was not an event that drew the Burgess family together. If anything, it drove them further apart.
The story pans from character to character in third person, including Jim’s wife Helen, and Bob’s ex-wife Pam. It was in those moments when the focus of the story was told through these two women that I came to really like Helen, and I also understood Pam.
Susan had not yet met Steve, and Jim had not yet met Helen, so Pam, looking back on it, felt that not only was she in love with Bob, but that she was almost his sibling as well; for those were the years when they became her family.
Jim and Bob end up going back and forth to Shirley Falls in order to help their teenage nephew, Zach, out of a thoughtless prank that has sparked such national news coverage it is now being pursued as a hate crime. They are both attorneys, but Jim skyrocketed to fame with an OJ Simpson-like trial. Everyone in Shirley Falls knows and remembers him quite fondly for this 20-year old trial, while Jim has nothing but loathing for Shirley Falls…and Bob.
Jim and Helen have a perfect life. They have money, their children are off to college. Bob lives a few blocks away and wants to be involved in their lives. Susan still lives in Shirley Falls with her son Zach, both feeling dejected and unable to function with one another as a family.
The character I like the most, though, was Bob. There was a small part of me that could identify with him and as the novel progressed and relationships were revealed in more detail, I began to sympathize with him. I felt he was treated very unjustly by his brother, and I could understand his maintaining friendship with his ex-wife, but the woman in me also railed that he continued to let Pam use Bob for the familiarity he provided in her life.
Terrifying, how the ending of his marriage had dismantled him. The silence – where there had been for so long the sound of Pam’s voice, her chatter, her laughter, her sharp opinions, her sudden bursting forth of tears – the absence of all that, the silence almost killed him.
Susan was also an interesting character. She’s a woman barely keeping it together, trying to engage her teenage son (who needed some serious therapy). It’s not enough. Zach wants very little to do with her. They are both leading miserable, pathetic excuses for lives.
She learned – freshly, scorchingly – of the privacy of sorrow. It was as though she had been escorted through a door into some large and private club that she has not even known existed. Women who miscarried. Society did not care much for them. It really didn’t. And the women in the club mostly passed each other silently. People outside the club said, “You’ll have another one.”
The main familial characters come full circle by the end of the novel. They grow in such ways that that had me rooting and cheering for them from the sidelines of the pages. Throughout the entire novel, I enjoyed seeing the juxtaposition of Susan and Jim’s families and marriages.
***** About the Author *****
ELIZABETH STROUT is the author of several novels, including: Abide with Me, a national bestseller and BookSense pick, and Amy and Isabelle, which won the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction and the Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize, and was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Orange Prize in England. In 2009 she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for her book Olive Kitteridge. Her short stories have been published in a number of magazines, including The New Yorker. She teaches at the Master of Fine Arts program at Queens University of Charlotte.