The Burgess Boys

  • Elizabeth Strout
  • Random House
  • 336 pp.

Three adult siblings are forced to reassess their assumptions and beliefs about personal history and identity when a teenager’s actions throw the family into crisis.

Novelist Elizabeth Strout’s fourth book, The Burgess Boys, is a thoughtful and intriguing saga about a family from Maine, the author’s childhood home and the setting of prior works including her third novel Olive Kittredge, awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2008.

In the prologue, a writer who lives in New York calls her mother in Maine and warns her, “I think I’m going to write the story of the Burgess kids … People will say it’s not nice to write about people I know.”

Her mother’s reply foreshadows the novel’s theme. 

“Well, you don’t know them,” she said. “Nobody ever knows anyone.” 

The first chapter’s opening pages introduce the Burgess siblings and their fraught situation. As young children in Shirley Falls, Jim and twins Susan and Bob “suffered publicly” when their father died in a freak accident. The siblings never speak of the tragedy but it has cast a shadow over their lives. The brothers left Maine decades ago and are both attorneys in Manhattan. Now Susan calls them back to Shirley Falls. Her teenage son Zack has thrown a pig’s head into the Somali immigrants’ mosque. The incident has been “in the newspapers, even in the New York Times, and on television too.” Zack calls his action “a dumb joke” but it may be prosecuted as a hate crime.

Jim, a well-known former prosecutor who is now partner in a prestigious firm, briefly attacks the problem and then returns to New York, delegating Bob, a Legal Aid attorney, to “contain the situation.” The twins, Susan and Bob, are alike in many ways — divorced, sad and lonely. They struggle with a chronic sense of inadequacy and are uneasy with each other. Bob yearns for his brother’s certainty and efficacy and doubts his own ability to ensure Zack’s successful defense. Susan feels helpless to protect her strange, awkward son and is terrified he will go to jail. When Bob asks if she believes Zack is connected with a skinhead group, she says, “I don’t think he has a real connection with anyone.”

To varying degrees, Susan, Bob and Jim also suffer from this same lack of real connection. Over the course of the novel, Zack’s crisis unbalances the siblings’ relationships with each other, their spouses and former spouses, and their friends and acquaintances. The pig’s head tossed into the mosque is like a stone thrown into this family’s pond: it stirs depths, creates ripples, forces what is hidden on the bottom to surface. 

There is much to admire in this novel, including the author’s use of multiple voices to tell the story in close third-person narration from shifting points of view. These narrators are influenced by personal experience and the cultures of their original and adopted communities — Maine, New York and Somalia. 

Strout cites “the Russians” as among the authors she most enjoys rereading. Here, within the compass of far fewer pages, she creates a layered narrative effect reminiscent of Tolstoy. The Burgess siblings and Jim’s wife, Helen, dominate the foreground of the story. The chorus of background voices includes Bob’s ex-wife, the wife of Jim’s law partner, the Shirley Falls chief of police, Susan Burgess’ elderly tenant, a Unitarian minister, and the Somali elder, Abdikarim. These background characters speak only briefly, but Strout brings each to life with telling detail and endows each with a back story embedded in family and community. The many strands of story weave together to create a densely textured tapestry. 

Strout’s legal training and social work background likely contribute to her interest in the question of relative truth. What really happened? Why? Here as in life, the answers often depend upon who is providing the evidence, who is telling the story. The novel’s multiple — but intentionally limited — points of view illustrate and support its theme: no one ever really knows anyone. Understanding and perception are bound by how we see ourselves and others, and how we’re seen by both intimates and strangers.

During an interview with Diane Rehm the author observed, “We have an idea of who we are and we don’t really want that to change … it’s how we get through life.” The chain of events and actions precipitated by the novel’s initial crisis force each family member to re-evaluate core assumptions and beliefs about personal history and identity. “He is not the person I thought he was,” one character says of another — and she could be speaking of every player in this drama. Each is more complicated than he or she appears and each must change. 

For this reader, Bob Burgess emerges as the most resonant and sympathetic character. In her interview with Rehm, Strout explained that in her writing she seeks “to get across something that’s honest, emotionally and psychologically.” Bob is a quiet triumph in this regard. She also said, “I very often return to the work of Alice Munro and William Trevor. They both just bring me comfort.” Strout’s portrayal of Bob’s development affords the reader similar satisfaction. He becomes the still, reflective center in the midst of dramatic events. “The sky had no moonlight, no stars. He could not believe how dark it was … He had never — never — expected to return to Maine. For a few moments he felt shivers of apprehension: thick sweaters worn day after day, snow kicked from boots, cold rooms entered. He had run from this, and so had Jim. And yet what lay before him did not seem strange, and life was like that, he thought.” 

Bob’s progress through darkness toward light is among the many rewards of reading this fine novel.

Ellen Prentiss Campbell’s fiction and essays have appeared in journals including The Massachusetts Review, The American Literary Review and The Fiction Writers Review. 

She is at work on a novel set in a former psychiatric hospital near her home in Maryland.

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