The Burgess Boys – Book Review

BurgessBoysHaweeya said, “In America, it is about the individual. Self-realization. Go to the grocery store, the doctor’s office, open any magazine, and it is self, self, self. But in my culture it is about community and family.” – from The Burgess Boys –

The Burgess family has had its struggles. Jim, Bob and Susan lost their father to a tragic accident when they were just young children living in Shirley Falls, Maine. For years, Bob has lived with the guilt that it was all his fault. Now, since the death of their mother, both Jim and Bob have moved to New York City where Jim is a well-known and wealthy lawyer for a big firm, and Bob works as a Legal Aid attorney. Their relationship is almost one of bullying – with Jim often making degrading comments to Bob, and Bob feeling “less than” his older brother. Susan has remained in Shirley Falls, raising her son Zach alone after her husband left the marriage.

When Zach makes a bad decision, his actions will not only have deep repercussions within his own family, but will mobilize a divided community because Shirley Falls has become home to a group of Somali Muslims. This isolated group has sparked racism, misunderstanding and a kind of righteous indignation among certain townspeople. When Zach’s singular act occurs, Shirley Falls splits into two groups – those who see the Somalis as outsiders, and those who see Zach’s actions as a form of hate crime. As Jim and Bob rally around their family, returning once again to Maine, the deep fissures in their own pasts rise to the surface.

It saddened him, but it seemed far away. But he knew very soon it would not feel far away; the murkiness of Susan and Zachary and Shirley Falls would seep into his apartment the way the emptiness below waited to remind him that his neighbors were no more, that nothing lasts forever, there is nothing to be counted on. – from The Burgess Boys –

Elizabeth Strout’s newest novel is a bit of a psychological study of the cracks that develop within families and communities and the often difficult road to healing and forgiveness after loss and misunderstanding. As with all her work, the characters in The Burgess Boys are exceptionally well developed. She introduces multiple characters and delves below the surface of them all to help the reader gain understanding of their fears, hopes, and disappointments.

Bob becomes the central character in a story about sibling rivalry, family secrets and searching for connection with others. Bob’s divorce from his wife, Pam, haunts him. Even years after their split, he misses her chatter, laughter, and “sharp opinions.” But he largely suffers in silence, portraying himself as the easy going, likeable guy he wants to be. Beneath the surface, however, Bob harbors another loss which he has never really come to terms with – that of his father. For decades he has accepted responsibility for his father’s death and tolerates his older brother’s cruel verbal abuse. By the end of the novel, Bob will be the character who grows the most.

Despite the extraordinary character development, The Burgess Boys fell a little flat for me. All of the characters are living lives of disappointment and unrealized self-actualization. Marriages are unhealthy and sad. Children are isolated and awkward. Friendships are superficial. Siblings struggle to find something to like about each other. Half way through this book, I began to feel the weight of all this despair. I began to long for something, anything, to brighten the pages and insert hope into the story.

In fairness, Strout does, eventually, deliver redemption for her characters and allows for some hope to surface. But for me, that redemption came a little too late in the story. I turned the final page and sighed, thankful that I could leave these characters and their muddled lives behind.

I found the inclusion of the Somali community in this novel interesting. Strout uses it as a catalyst to spark the conflict in her novel – and she makes an effort to tie the conflict to the contemporary themes of racism and fear which have pervaded American society since 9-11. Strout’s efforts in this area were only partially successful for me. In some ways, the inclusion of the Somali struggle felt contrived – an easy way to create conflict in a novel which is really about familial conflict and misunderstanding. But, some readers may find that expanding the horizons of the story adds depth and power to the novel.

Readers who enjoy character driven stories and who have liked Strout’s novels in the past may want to give this one a try.


librarythingFTC Disclosure: I received this book from the publisher through the Library Thing Early Reviewer Program.

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  1. Hm, given a choice, I prefer plot driven novels. I’ve heard so much about Strout’s work, though, I’d like to give this one a try.

  2. Racism is now part and parcel of everyday life so this story is very topical – I’d like to get to it.

  3. You articulated much better than I did several of the issues I had. I can’t quite put my finger on my issues with the Somalis, but something felt off about their part of their story.

    • susan on May 21, 2013 at 14:39

    Yeah I think the brother aspect was done quite well; they felt real and interesting, and the secret that’s revealed about their father’s passing is quite mind blowing. The characters kept me going in this story. I wanted to see what kind of family resolution there would be

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