The Burgess Boys

The Burgess Boys

by Elizabeth Strout

Overview: Elizabeth Strout “animates the ordinary with an astonishing force,” wrote The New Yorker on the publication of her Pulitzer Prize–winning Olive Kitteridge. The San Francisco Chronicle praised Strout’s “magnificent gift for humanizing characters.” Now the acclaimed author returns with a stunning novel as powerful and moving as any work in contemporary literature.

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.

Gail Reid (05/24/15): I approached The Burgess Boys with both enthusiasm and trepidation since Strout's previous novel Olive Kittredge is among my favorites.

The story of three siblings raised in Maine: Jim who moves to New York and is a brilliant, successful defense attorney with a huge ego and socialite wife; Bob who follows in his brother's career in NY but is a mild-mannered attorney at Legal Aid and divorced by middle age; and their hardscrabble sister Susan who stays in Maine, a struggling single parent raising a troubled teenage son Zach. When Zach commits a prank that is ruled a hate crime,the brothers reunite with Susan in Maine and their lives become entangled again after many years apart.

While there are parts of the plot that might be predictable, what really shines are the character development and dialogue. The brothers, their sister and nephew, their spouses or ex-spouses and the hate crime victims are so well defined that they become people whose behavior you understand and won't forget. The author has a terrific ear and it shows in crafting dialogue that is convincing and impactful.

This is a story of family dynamics; the rise and fall of powerful people; the differences between life in rural Maine and New York City; and the loneliness and experiences of an immigrant community are all exposed in this rich and brilliant novel. In my opinion, right up there with Olive Kittredge!
Rating: *****

Arlene Almas (08/18/13): The Burgess boys of the title are brothers who both left Shirley Falls, the small town in Maine where they grew up, as soon as they could, and now live in New York. Other than that, they couldn’t be more different: Jim is a well-known, prosperous, self-important attorney who constantly disparages his brother Bob, who works as a Legal Aid lawyer and is the more kindhearted of the two. Their sister Susan, Bob’s twin, has remained in Shirley Falls as a single mom raising her teenage son Zach. All three siblings have distressing recollections of the car accident that killed their father, the memory of which arises quite often in conversation among them, exposing their differing perceptions of the event. When Zach is arrested for what appears to be a hate crime involving the surprisingly sizeable Somali population of Shirley Falls, Susan turns to Jim for help, and Jim delegates the job of representing Zach to Bob. Bob has always been in awe of Jim, following his lead and his orders, but during the course of working with Zach and Susan on the case Bob begins to use his own judgment more and more. Strout delves deeply into the growing rift between Jim and Bob, and the development of a closer relationship between Bob and both Susan and Zach. The author reveals the flaws in Jim’s superficially successful marriage and the despondency that led to Bob’s divorce, as well as the desperate struggle of a mother trying to understand and help her deeply unhappy son. I found this a moving exploration of the characters as individuals and as members of a family with a great deal of tension-filled shared history, and enjoyed it very much.
Rating: ****

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