Thursday, May 23, 2013

Book Review: The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout

Title: The Burgess Boys
Author: Elizabeth Strout
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Personal Copy
This book would be rated: PG-13 for language

Jim, Bob, and Susan grew up in a Maine mill town, where their father was a foreman until Bob ran him over with the family car when he was four years old. The kids grew up, and Jim and Bob left Maine in their rearview mirrors, both ending up as New York attorneys (but the most different kinds of New York attorneys imaginable-- Jim is a high-powered defense attorney modeled on F. Lee Bailey or Robert Kardashian and Bob works in Legal Aid). The boys are in their 50s when their sister calls to tell them that her son (who has always been socially awkward and painfully shy) has been arrested for throwing a pig's head through the door of a mosque in their town, which has become a gathering-place for Somali refugees.

And so the Burgess brothers go back to Maine, where they confront their pasts.

While it's obvious that The Burgess Boys has its roots in the same place as Strout's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Olive Kitteridge (one of the best books I've read in years), I don't think it's quite as strong as Olive Kitteridge. The most fascinating part of the story for me was not the main plotline itself (what will happen to the nephew?) but the character portrait of Jim, who, like Olive, is prickly, although it seems that most of the people closest to him don't see it at the beginning of the novel. Jim is a powerful man, a man who is accustomed to getting or taking what he wants, and everyone seems to respect him for it. He's the kind of guy who everyone at work would think was a tremendous jerk, but who seems to have a wife and siblings who still adore him. And Strout does a wonderful job looking at this character, at these contradictions, and in making him a fully rounded individual.

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