Friday, April 26, 2013

Review: The Burgess Boys

Summary: Elizabeth Strout “animates the ordinary with an astonishing force,” wrote The New Yorker on the publication of her Pulitzer Prize–winning Olive Kitteridge. The San Francisco Chronicle praised Strout’s “magnificent gift for humanizing characters.” Now the acclaimed author returns with a stunning novel as powerful and moving as any work in contemporary literature.

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.

With a rare combination of brilliant storytelling, exquisite prose, and remarkable insight into character, Elizabeth Strout has brought to life two deeply human protagonists whose struggles and triumphs will resonate with readers long after they turn the final page. Tender, tough-minded, loving, and deeply illuminating about the ties that bind us to family and home, The Burgess Boys is Elizabeth Strout’s newest and perhaps most astonishing work of literary art. -- Random House

I consider OLIVE KITTERIDGE by Elizabeth Strout to be one of my favorite books... ever! I was truly blown away by Ms. Strout's writing. So it's sure seemed like a long wait to me for her next novel THE BURGESS BOYS. I couldn't wait to get my hands on this book and I have to say I wasn't disappointed. THE BURGESS BOYS was a great read... although it didn't quite live up to OLIVE KITTERIDGE. But honestly, I don't think that's even a fair expectation!

THE BURGESS BOYS tells the story of Bob and Jim Burgess, two men who are still reeling from the death of their father when they were young children. Both men couldn't wait to leave the small Maine town of Shirley Falls, and the eventually ended up in New York City working as lawyers, albeit in very different capacities. Bob is a Legal Aid attorney who has always taken a back seat to his successful brother Jim, while Jim is a successful corporate lawyer with goals of going into politics.

When their sister Susan's teenage son Zach is arrested for a crime against a Muslim church, both men return to Shirley Falls to help in whatever way they can. Their attempts to put their past behind them fails as they are forced to reexamine the events in their lives and their relationship with each other.

I thoroughly enjoyed THE BURGESS BROTHERS and found the story to be very entertaining. While I admit to having a hard time initially relating to the siblings (and even Zach for that matter), I thought that the characters were all very interesting; and by the end of the novel, I understood how their childhoods played a role in their adult selves. I'm still not certain that I ever came to truly "like" any of the characters (except maybe Bob); however, Ms. Strout has proved to me that I don't need to love a character to appreciate them. Case in point -- Olive!

THE BURGESS BROTHERS was a novel that definitely made me think... and I always consider that a good thing. What was interesting to me is that there were two distinct things about this story that affected me... and Ms. Strout managed to merge them in what seemed an effortless fashion. First of all was the human aspects of the story. By this I mean primarily the dynamic of the relationship between Jim and Bob and Susan as well as the idea of returning home. While some of the scenes made me cringe (namely how Jim treated Bob), I found their interactions to be interesting (and even entertaining) at times. I also found it fascinating how returning home to Shirley Falls affected each man.

The second aspect of the novel that intrigued me was how it explored some of the social conditions in today's society. Because Zach arguably committed a hate crime against Muslims, the ideas of prejudice, tolerance, and fear were certainly explored. In addition, the author did a great job of demonstrating how a small town and its residents behave especially in light of being threatened. I very much appreciated how a fictitious Shirley Falls served as a microcosm for our society as a whole, and there is no doubt that much of the behavior of the characters in this story deserves some reflection on the part of the reader.

I do think THE BURGESS BROTHERS would make an excellent book club selection. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to find a formal discussion guide, but I don't think that should stop you from considering this novel for a future discussion. I've already touched upon a few themes that warrant some thought, but you also might want to discuss sibling rivalry, the meaning of home, family dynamics, honesty, prejudice, jealousy, alienation, pride, insecurities, guilt, forgiveness, and redemption.

I highly recommend THE BURGESS BROTHERS to fans of literary fiction and especially family dramas.

Thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy of this novel.


rhapsodyinbooks said...

I have yet to read her! But I tend to avoid family drama books! (I have enough in my own life!)

bermudaonion said...

This sounds fantastic and very relevant in today's society. I wish I could get my book club to read it.

Unknown said...

I tried reading Olive Kitteridge but just couldn't get into it - I rarely ever give up on a book, but I didn't finish that one. The Burgess Boys is, however, on my "to-read" list.

Jenn's Bookshelves said...

I have this book in my readathon stack; I was so lucky to obtain a signed first edition at my local indie bookstore. I've really been looking forward to diving into this one and your review has just intensified my excitement!

Beth Hoffman said...

I read this a few weeks ago and it was an odd experience because while I enjoyed the story and craft of her writing, I had difficulty liking (and relating to) many of the characters.

The Many Thoughts of a Reader said...

This sounds really interesting

johnny ray said...

This is a very good review and one with a lot of thought and insight--good job!