The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout
Publisher: Random House
Date: March 25, 2013 I
Rating: 4 out of 5
Book Summary: 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.
My Thoughts: Of the three Burgess siblings, Bob is the only one who believes family means everything. To him, nothing’s more important than supporting your family. Unlike his older brother Jim and his twin sister Susan, Bob is willing to help his siblings in any way he can. The fact that Jim thinks Bob is a moron and Susan refuses to speak to Bob doesn’t affect how Bob feels about them. An enigma, it’s hard to understand why Bob willingly puts up with being Jim’s verbal punching bag. A recurring thought I had while reading The Burgess Boys was: “we choose our friends but not our families. We’re born into our families and stuck with them for life”. That saying was the only way I could really understand Bob. Susan and Jim, particularly, are miserable, angry people. They aren’t particularly nice to anyone, even the people with whom they live. Susan told Bob many years ago she didn’t like him and wasn’t going to talk to him anymore. Bob has respected her feelings and stayed out of her way. Meanwhile, Jim has been belittling and disparaging Bob since the death of their father when Bob was four and Jim a few years older. The fact that Jim still treats Bob this way rarely fazes Bob. Bob thinks “it’s just the way Jim is”. So when Jim moved to Brooklyn, NY from Shirley Falls, Maine, Bob followed.
Bob isn’t stupid (he’s earned a law degree and is a practicing NYC Legal Aid attorney), angry or miserable like Jim and Susan. He is sad and confused. Though he doesn’t think very much of himself, he’s still kind and thoughtful to others and people feel happy being around him. Bob would help just about anybody he could rather than see them in pain, including his family. This in spite of how they treat him. I didn’t think Bob was easy to relate to or understand but I was able to sympathize with him. He’s a loner who can’t understand why anyone would want to be his friend so he’s often withdrawn. It seems to me, despite Jim’s abuse, Bob spends a lot of time with Jim and Helen (Jim’s wife) because a) Jim lets him; b) Helen likes having Bob to talk with; and c) it’s preferable to being alone.
It’s easy to understand why Bob accepted Susan’s decision not to talk to him anymore. Susan is boring, bland and has no skills as a conversationalist. She has no friends, hobbies or interests and simply fades into the background. She has a son Zach, to whom my heart goes out. Susan has left him in limbo. She did nothing to set up play-dates or give him a social life when he was little. He must have been bored out of his mind growing up with her as a mother. And now he doesn’t know how to make friends.
It’s an unfortunate aspect of the book that I can’t make the leap and imagine a real-life Susan in the real world. With Jim, on the other hand, it was almost too easy! I’ve known many attorneys just like him: arrogant, obnoxious, nasty and extremely self-centered. Jim is the kind of man that believes everything revolves around him and nothing bad will ever touch him. Even when you see it right there in front of you, though, it’s hard to imagine going through life like that: angry all the time.
Elizabeth Strout clearly understands family dynamics and how family members can mistreat one another. This book made it easier for me to understand why, sometimes, family members don’t speak: when they do, they treat each other terribly. It’s one thing to lash out at your brother on a bad day, for example, but to consistently verbally abuse him the way Jim does Bob brings things (down) to another level.
Jim, the oldest, doesn’t tolerate the different opinions, behavior and lifestyle of anyone. Despite being his siblings, Bob and Susan are no exceptions. Jim is extremely flawed and dysfunctional. He loves his wife but he’s become much angrier and unhappy recently. He has very little contact with Susan. This is only in part because she has remained in their hometown of Shirley Falls, Maine, a place Jim abhors. If Bob, who lives very close by, didn’t visit frequently, Jim wouldn’t be in contact with him either. Jim doesn’t understand how fortunate he is to have siblings, especially a brother like Bob who believes everything Jim does is gold. Jim left Shirley Falls to escape his family and his past, something Bob doesn’t understand. Bob thinks Jim is a great guy - strong and fearless. Meanwhile, Susan believes Jim is too important and busy to be bothered by her.
The book’s central conflict begins when Susan reaches out to Jim because she desperately needs help for her son, Zach. Jim’s instinct is to shut her down but he winds up helping, propelled by ego and pride. His decision to help Susan and Zach is based on the belief he’s a household name in Shirley Falls after he prosecuted a big case years ago. He doesn’t want to look like the bad guy now.
At the other end of the spectrum, Bob doesn’t care that Susan didn’t call him, his only concern is the welfare of his nephew. Bob doesn’t judge Susan for being disagreeable or screwing up her son’s life. He believes Susan’s been doing the best she can against difficult odds. Bob is like that, often giving people the benefit of the doubt, to a fault. This makes it all the more shocking and painful for him when he learns that some of the people he’s always believed in can’t be trusted. To say more here would “spoil” the story.
The crisis with Zach that brings Bob and Jim back to their home town shakes up their family dynamics. Jim can’t handle the memories of his past and he appears even angrier and more miserable than usual. Bob is the only one who sees how difficult it’s been for Zach to grow up without a father, a loving family and the support that comes with these things. When Bob brings this up to Jim, Jim hurls some truths about the past at him that shake Bob to his core. When he learns the truth about his father’s death, his love for his family is severely tested. Finally Bob sees Jim for who he really is and understands Jim’s callous disregard of his family. Bob’s doesn’t know if he can be around Jim anymore. But at the same time he’s not sure he can live without his brother in his life.
Elizabeth Strout shows how important a families’ love and support is for a good and happy life. Family members need to be able to rely on one another and support each other. Strout looks to the Somali people for an example of strong family community. They’ve been immigrating, moving into Shirley Falls from Mogadishu where their people and their way of life are being destroyed.
Shirley Falls is small-town Maine. Much of the population is closed-minded and not receptive to the Somali people. Their brightly colored clothing, strange foods, alien beliefs and ideas are too far removed from the mainstream. What really strengthens the book is Strout’s brilliant juxtaposing of the lives of the Somalis and their emphasis on family togetherness against the splintered, dysfunctional Burgess family. The Somali way of life is dependent on extended family relationships for almost everything: child care, food, clothing, shelter and companionship. So it’s no surprise one of the most trying aspects of fleeing Mogadishu was keeping families together. Unlike the Burgess siblings who keep their distance from one another and have no idea what happens in each other’s lives day-to-day, the Somalis live close together and interact daily not just because it’s expected but because they want to.
The theme of family and love and loyalty to one another is central to the narrative. However, there’s still a lot going on in terms of Jim, Susan and Bob’s side stories. These are mostly predicated on immediate family relationships that I don’t cover in this review. Though they relate to the themes of family, love, loyalty and trust, they don’t coalesce into one solid story. Rather, they emphasize how the lack of strong family relationships can cause sadness, loneliness and even despair.
Despite being relayed by a third-person omniscient narrator, to me The Burgess Brothers was about Bob. He’s the one who undergoes the most change, discovering his strength and worth as a human being, learning to face the reality his siblings’ characters and deciding whether or not he wants to be a part of their lives. Stripping it down, this book is an intense and complex novel that, at its core, explores the many facets of family relationships.
Strout’s prose style is beautiful and her in-depth exploration of family relationships is fascinating. But I admit when I first finished The Burgess Boys, my head was swimming. There’s just so much happening in this book and most of it doesn’t end well. I certainly prefer this to when a book’s ending is all neat and tidy but so much unhappiness and intensity is exhausting. As time went by, the more I thought about The Burgess Boys, the more I appreciated and understand Bob and what Strout is saying about family.
I received an ARC of The Burgess Boys from Giselle-Marie Roig at Random House.