Friday, November 1, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout

Elizabeth Strout writes some painfully insightful contemporary fiction. I loved Olive Kitteridge, despite its rather bleak and lonely portrayal of its New England cast of characters. Abide With Me also impressed me. (But I confess after looking back at my review that I’m having trouble remembering details of the plot.) So I put my name on the library waiting list for The Burgess Boys as soon as it came out. The topic is not one that would normally have called out to me. It falls into the category of "contemporary dysfunctional family," but I wanted to read whatever Strout wrote next.

In the prologue, a writer and her mother gossip about a troubled family from their hometown in Shirley Falls, Maine. Somewhat estranged themselves, recounting the troubles of this other family is one thing that brings them together. The writer eventually decides to tell the story of this family, the Burgesses, although she is a little concerned about what people will think of her for writing a book about people she knows. It’s an odd jumping off point for the story and seems a little unnecessary. In fact, the superfluousness of the prologue made me think that there really must be some sort of literary significance to it. Maybe the point is that we are all a little voyeuristic about other people’s lives and tend to use stories of other peoples’ troubles to diminish our own problems the way the narrator and her mother do. Or perhaps the point is the more obvious one that the narrator’s mother makes: nobody ever knows anyone. But Strout works very hard to get us to know the Burgesses.

The story itself is an interwoven tale of painful sibling dynamics, marital woes, and social dysfunction, peppered through with tiny (very tiny) rays of hope.

The title is a bit of a misnomer. There are three Burgesses, two boys and one girl. Jim Burgess, the eldest, is the leader, the rock of the family. He possesses a certain charisma that wins people over, but the reader, who gets to see through him, is not so easily won. He has grown up to be a wildly successful defense lawyer. The twins, Bob and Susan, are a few years younger. Bob has tried all his life to emulate Jim. He’s a lawyer as well, but he works for the legal aid society. He has not achieved Jim’s financial success or, for that matter, any of Jim’s admirable stability. Bob is practically an alcoholic. Yet Bob is, we are made to understand, actually a nice guy for all his ineffectiveness. Both men have escaped Maine and now live in New York City. Jim is married to a wealthy Connecticut woman named Helen. They are recent empty-nesters. Bob, childless, is divorced from Pam, but remains on friendly terms with her. The female sibling, Susan, has stayed in Shirley Falls where she works as an optometrist. Her husband abandoned her and their awkward son, Zachary, now a teenager. Susan is embittered, lonely, and "no longer pretty" as everyone is quick to point out.

None of the siblings is particularly happy. A tragedy in their past may be the reason or it could be that all Strout’s characters are basically discontent. But the Burgesses do have a whopper of a history to account for their underlying maladjustment. While young, they suffered the loss of their father in a horrifying accident. The three children were playing in their car at the top of the hill. The four-year-old Bob messed with the gears and the car rolled down the hill and killed him. And while no one blamed him, and no one ever speaks of the accident, poor Bob carries that burden around with him. And the siblings did and do blame him.

The story begins when Zachary (Susan’s teenage son) tosses a pig’s head into a mosque in Shirley Falls during prayers during Ramadan.

He has no real reason for doing this beyond a vague hope for some attention from his absent father. Zach is a very lonely, depressed boy. However, Shirley Falls is experiencing some racial tension and a clash of cultures. Although the Maine town prides itself on being warm, welcoming, and liberal, an influx of Somali refugees has tested them and found them wanting. Many of the inhabitants are more strongly prejudiced than they want to admit.

Zach’s stupid act is interpreted as a hate crime. Susan summons her lawyer brothers home to Maine for support. A hornet’s nest is stirred up as old patterns of sibling interaction are revived and intensified.

Strout is at her best with character sketching and making people seem very real, very large warts and all. Although it is difficult to like any of the siblings or their spouses, it is possible to understand and sympathize with them. The plotting of the book is somewhat predictable and is not the strong point, although the story did hold my interest throughout. The book deals with some ambitious themes and may be trying to do too much. But the pictures Strout draws of the bonds between the siblings that ultimately, despite their dysfunction, are strong enough to carry them through the bitterest trials, make this a satisfying family drama.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds intriguing. Interesting the way she opens it. I have a prologue in one of my mss, so I'm hoping there's some favour with them these days. I don't mind a prologue if it steers me in the right direction.