The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout

the burgess boys picThe Burgess Boys
Elizabeth Strout

3 book marks1 half bookmark

I enjoyed reading Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Olive Kitteridge very much and I wanted to enjoy The Burgess Boys in the same way. There are many things to like about this story of Jim and Bob Burgess and Bob’s twin sister, Susan. We meet them as fifty-something adults, deep into their lives and full of complex problems, problems that were set into place when, as young children playing in the family car in Shirley Falls, Maine, they rolled down the driveway and over their father, killing him.

Bob is found at the wheel and, and at age four, shoulders the blame for this terrible accident. He has endured a lifetime of complicated family dynamics and at the opening of the story is an affable, but divorced and lonely borderline alcoholic lawyer. He’s overpowered by his brother Jim, a famous defense attorney turned corporate lawyer, who has spent a lifetime berating and punishing Bob for their father’s death. Susan has her own problems with her son Zachary, who has been arrested for throwing a pig’s head into a Somali mosque in Shirley Falls. The two brothers try to help her and their lives change in major ways in the process.

This is a book full of thoughts, conversations, arguments, feelings and reflections and, although the characters do travel between New York and Maine, there’s very little other movement. This slower pace may frustrate some readers, because the story seems to reach a point of going nowhere, only to pick up deep into the second half. That may not be enough for some, but I am wondering if Strout has deliberately constructed her story to show how the characters, particularly Bob and Jim, begin the story deeply rutted into their lives and habits and very slowly undergo major changes that drive the story to its conclusion.

I think Strout does a great job with these characters, showing how often grown siblings never do grow out of their childish ways of communicating with each other, something that is frustrating to view as an outsider, but can ring true for many. I also like Jim’s wife, Helen and Bob’s ex-wife Pam. I think they are good examples of in-laws who have earned their dues and rights as family members and I especially like how Pam feels about her experience as an almost-fourth sibling during her early years in the Burgess family.

I like Bob’s character the most because of his great ability to soothe people and calm situations, despite his arguably messed-up life. He has deep thoughts that are presented in a simple way and a manner of connecting with people that makes a real difference. For me, that quality rises above his other major flaws. Jim’s character, although arrogant, has many realistic traits and he is complicated in a different way. His outer finish of confidence and authority carry him far, but the way he lashes out at Bob makes him difficult to like. I like how Strout shows how they change in relation to their flaws.

It’s hard to name the real plot in this story and that’s where I think there’s a problem. Strout introduces the reader to the Somali people who have moved to Shirley Falls, and the difficulties they have had integrating and being accepted in the town. And although Zach’s character pulls them into the Burgess storyline, there is something forced here. Again, I’d like to think it’s deliberate on Strout’s part, to show how very hard it was for the Somalis by making this storyline so different from the rest of the book. But, except for Abdikarim and his character’s initial struggle to fit in and later assimilation, it’s hard to know the rest of the Somali immigrants.

And you either like open endings or you hate them. Some readers are not satisfied with this kind of finish. I like the open ending because it allows me to think about the characters long after I’ve finished the book. And I think this kind of ending realistically shows how there is never a perfectly neat finish to people’s complicated and messy lives.

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