The Burgess Boys

by Elizabeth Strout

(Random House, $26, 336 pages)

Who is this author?

Elizabeth Strout won a Pulitzer Prize for her third book, the New York Times bestseller “Olive Kitteridge,” a collection of linked short stories about a cranky, crusty yet ultimately sympathetic wife and mother in Maine who readers found difficult to like at first, and then difficult to forget. Her first novel, “Amy and Isabel,” was about a mother and daughter in MaIne; her second, the bestselling “Abide With Me,’ is about a New England minister wracked with doubt following a tragedy. She lives in Maine and New York City.

Where does she get her ideas? Here is what Strout told a Barnes & Noble interviewer:

“Without a doubt my mother was an inspiration for my writing. This is true in many ways, but mostly because she is a wonderful storyteller, without even knowing it. I would listen, as a child, when some friend of hers came to visit, and they would gossip about the different people they knew. My mother had the most fascinating stories about people’s families, murderers, mental illnesses, babies abandoned, and she delivered it all in a matter-of-fact way that was terribly compelling. It made me believe that there was nothing more interesting than the lives of people, their real hidden lives, and this of course can lead one down the path of becoming a fiction writer.”

What is this book about?

The Burgess boys, Jim and Bob, lost their dad in a freak accident when they were kids in Maine, and that may explain why they headed for the bright lights of big-city Manhattan as soon as they could. They both became lawyers – Jim is a successful corporate type and Bob is a Legal Aid attorney – and Jim likes to lord it over Bob, something they’ve both  grown used to. Then they get a call from Maine from their sister, Susan, whose friendless teenage son is in trouble for tossing a pig’s head into a mosque where Somali immigrants worship. (There are, in fact, many Somali immigrants in the Lewiston area and such an incident happened there in 2006.) So “the boys” return home to help and that rips the Band-Aids off the tensions of their relationship, long ignored, and sets profound changes in motion.

Why you’ll like it:

When you think of Maine, phrases like “down-to-earth” pop up, and Strout’s writing embodies that quality. Without fussiness or pretention, she creates very real characters who may not be entirely admirable, or admirable at all, but are nonetheless compelling to consider. The New Yorker says she “animates the ordinary with an astonishing force,” and those who have read her novels would surely agree.

What others are saying

Amazon Best Book of the Month, March 2013, says: “It can’t be easy to sit down and write a new novel after your last, “Olive Kitteridge,” won the Pulitzer Prize (in 2009). The pressure! The pressure! In “The Burgess Boys”, novelist Elizabeth Strout somehow manages to survive whatever next-book anxiety while at the same time revisiting the themes and types of characters that have made her famous: plainspoken Mainers (some transplanted now to Brooklyn) bound together by love, competitiveness and the issues of the day. Here, hotshot lawyer Jim and bighearted Bob Burgess come together over a politically incorrect prank perpetrated by their sister’s son–and discover that their distrust of each other has never really gone away. But then, neither has their love. Nobody does buried conflict and tortured familial relations better than Strout.

In The Washington Post, Ron Charles says: “After “Amy and Isabelle,” “Abide with Me” and the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Olive Kitteridge,” no one should be surprised by the poignancy and emotional vigor of Elizabeth Strout’s new novel. But the broad social and political range of “The Burgess Boys” shows just how impressively this extraordinary writer continues to develop…As she showed in “Olive Kitteridge,” Strout is something of a connoisseur of emotional cruelty. But does anyone capture middle age quite as tenderly? Those latent fears—of change, of not changing, of being alone, of being stuck forever with the same person. There seems no limit to her sympathy, her ability to express, without the acrid tone of irony, our selfish, needy anxieties that only family can aggravate—and quell.”

 “Strout’s greatest gift as a writer, outside a diamond-sharp precision that packs 320 fast-paced pages full of insight, is her ability to let the reader in on all the rancor of her characters without making any of them truly detestable. . . . Strout creates a portrait of an American community in turmoil that’s as ambitious as Philip Roth’s “American Pastoral” but more intimate in tone,” says Time.

 “What truly makes Strout exceptional—and her latest supple and penetrating novel so profoundly affecting—is the perfect balance she achieves between the tides of story and depths of feeling. . . . Every element in Strout’s graceful, many-faceted novel is keenly observed, lustrously imagined and trenchantly interpreted,” says the Chicago Tribune.

 Says Kirkus Reviews:  “Two squabbling brothers confront their demons, their crumbling love lives and a hate crime case that thrusts them back to their Maine roots. The titular boys … are Jim and Bob Burgess, who are similar on the surface–lawyers, New Yorkers–but polar opposites emotionally. Jim is a high-wattage trial attorney who’s quick with a cruel rejoinder designed to put people in their place, while Bob is a divorcé who works for Legal Aid and can’t shake the guilt of killing his dad in a freak accident as a child. The two snap into action when their sister’s son in their native Maine is apprehended for throwing a pig’s head into a mosque. The scenario gives Strout an opportunity to explore the culture of the Somalis who have immigrated to the state in recent years–a handful of scenes are told from the perspective of a Somali cafe owner, baffled by American arrogance, racism and cruelty. But this is mainly a carefully manicured study of domestic (American and household) dysfunction with some rote messages about the impermanence of power and the goodness that resides in hard-luck souls–it gives nothing away to say that Jim comes to a personal reckoning and that Bob isn’t quite the doormat he’s long been thought to be….”

“Strout deftly exposes the tensions that fester among families. But she also takes a broader view, probing cultural divides. . . . Illustrating the power of roots, Strout assures us we can go home again—though we may not want to,” says O: The Oprah Magazine.

When is it available?

“The Burgess Boys” can be found at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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