Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout

My mother and I talked a lot about 

the Burgess family.

Opening to
The Burgess Boys
by Elizabeth Strout
Towards the end of Elizabeth Strouts new novel The Burgess Boys, the title characters are reunited with their sister after a long separation.  The three exchange guarded pleasantries until they can warmly welcome each other home.  We watch this scene through the eyes of the upstairs neighbor, an elderly tenant who has lived above Susan Burgess for years.  We listen in to the conversation, eavesdropping along with the upstairs neighbor, glad to hear, finally, that it looks like everything is going to be okay.  

After this scene near the end of the novel, I realized that this was how I'd been reading most of The Burgess Boys,  by listening in on conversations, getting the story second hand, instead of watching the main events as they unfolded.  

It's an interesting choice for an author to make, distancing the reader from the novel's major events instead of presenting them as they happen.  Emily Bronte did the same thing, so it's nothing new, and it was more of a frustration for me in Wuthering Heights than it is in The Burgess Boys

I should have known from the prologue.   As you can see in the opening sentence above, in the prologue, the narrator describes how she and her mother have followed the Burgess family for many years, reading about them, getting second hand gossip about them-- they may have even spoke to them now and then--until, one day, she finally decides to tell their story.

While this sense of being removed from first hand experience of the novel's events may be difficult for some readers, I admit that I found it a bit off-putting at times, in the end isn't this how we all experience many of the most important events in the lives of our own families, not through actually sharing them as they happen, but by sharing them afterwards, through second hand accounts.  You may have gone to your sister's wedding, but you only heard about what happened that made the groom so late to the church.  By the end of The Burgess Boys, I felt this little literary trick Ms. Strout had used ended up inviting the reader into the family since I was getting all the details at the same time as one sybling or another.  

And by the end of the novel, I had come to like them all, too.

If you've read Ms. Strout's award winning Olive Kitteridge, then you know her characters are not always easy to love.  The Burgess boys, Jim and Bob, and their sister Susan, are far from perfect, not really admirable, somewhat likable, often annoying, very human.  The three of them share a tragic past--they were all in the car when four-year-old Bob released the parking break.  Their father didn't notice them rolling down the hill until the car struck and killed him.  Since that day, Jim grew up to become a famous then a jaded trial lawyer; Bob became a lawyer also, but one too timid to ever go to trial; while Susan remained in their childhood home town in Maine.

When Susan's grown son, a strange, lonely young man named Zach, throws the butchered head of a pig into the storefront mosque of the Somali refugees who have moved to Maine, he sets a series of events into motion that will change all of their lives.  While the events of Zach's legal case and the community's reaction to him make for interesting reading, they are secondary to the Burgess family drama. The Burgess Boys is at its best when it stays within the confines of the family.  I'm going to say the same thing for Elisabeth Strout as well.  While I think she gets most of the larger political and societal picture around Zach's crime correct, as far as I can tell, Elizabeth Strout is really at her best, her most insightful, when she is focused on familial relationships.  She has a way of getting under the skin of difficult people like Susan and Jim Burgess, like Olive Kitteridge, and finding their humanity.  It's in this family of difficult people that you'll find the strongest parts of The Burgess Boys.

Full Disclosure:  I received an advanced readers copy of The Burgess Boys from the publishers.


Carin Siegfried said...

Ooh I can't wait to read this and your review makes me even more excited! I loved Olive and hope I love this one as much, too.

JoAnn said...

Excellent review, James! It sounds like all Elizabeth Strout's readers could have hoped for in a follow-up to Olive Kitteridge.

"Elizabeth Strout is really at her best, her most insightful, when she is focused on familial relationships. She has a way of getting under the skin of difficult people like Susan and Jim Burgess, like Olive Kitteridge, and finding their humanity."

And that's exactly why I love her writing... looking forward to The Burgess Boys.

martine said...

This one is going on the list, I loved Olive Kitteridge.
thanks for your review