Friday, May 31, 2013

The Burgess Boys

The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout
Random House; 3/26/2013
Hardcover, 336 pages
ISBN-13: 9781400067688

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.

My Thoughts:
Elizabeth Stout's latest novel, The Burgess Boys, introduces us to the whole Burgess family. The boys, now middle aged men, are Jim and Bob. They both escaped their hometown of Shirley Falls, Maine, as soon as they could and are currently living in New York City. Susan is Bob's bitter, divorced twin sister who stayed in Maine with her teenage son, Zachery. When we meet the Burgess boys, Jim is a well known, successful corporate attorney. He married Helen, a wealthy socialite who is devoted to Jim and making his life comfortable. Jim is still basking in the laurels he received from defending a famous client in Maine years earlier.  Jim constantly belittles Bob, a divorced Legal Aid attorney, who seems to amicably drift through life, perhaps a bit befuddled and carrying latent guilt for a childhood occurrence, but taking everything in stride.
The boys receive a call from Susan begging for help. Her son, Zach, has committed a thoughtless misdemeanor that has serious social/political repercussions, not only in their community but in the state. It is causing a media frenzy as a hate crime against Somali refugees who have immigrated to Maine. Although the Burgess family has not been close, Bob rushes to Maine to support Susan and Zach. What Susan wanted, however, was Jim's support. Jim and Helen told Bob to go to Maine while they proceeded with their vacation plans. Bob's help seems inept and he is told this by Jim and Susan. But, as the novel progresses, everything is not quite as it seems. There are hidden anxieties and secrets.
The story is told from the point of view of several characters: Bob, Helen, Susan, Zach, Bob's ex-wife Pam, a friend of Helen's, and a leader in the Somali community, but not Jim. These are all very realistic characters with the foibles and frailties that many middle-aged people encounter along the way. The story is about family loyalties,  disappointments, community, isolation, ego, racism, and anxieties. The novel itself is broken up into 4 parts and they flowed smoothly and quickly for me. Each of the characters had an individual voice, and everything was expertly blended together to tell the story.
The Burgess family is a very dysfunctional family, and Strout excels at capturing the very human emotions and feelings of her characters with remarkable sympathy, wisdom, and poignancy. The clarity and keen insight she manages while describing very realistic observations about the human condition is commendable. There were times when her writing just left me breathless. Literally breathless. The depth of character she creates and the intense discernment she manages to capture in a few sentences is brilliant.
The Burgess Boys doesn't end with all storylines reaching a graceful conclusion, but like life, the novel is better for this.
Very Highly Recommended - one of the best
Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of Random House via Netgalley for review purposes.

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