Book Review: Strout’s new novel a Maine family saga
“The Burgess Boys” (Random House), by Elizabeth Strout
Saturday, March 30, 2013
Jim and Bob Burgess, the brothers who are the title characters of Elizabeth Strout’s new novel, “The Burgess Boys,” grew up fatherless in a small Maine town after an accident in the family car when they were young.
They were smart, though, and became lawyers in New York City. Now Jim, at 55, is a high-powered corporate attorney who once gained national media attention. Bob, at 51, is a legal aid lawyer with a more modest sense of himself. As the novel unfolds, they are drawn back to their hometown, revisiting old scars while struggling with a new shock to the family psyche.
This is Strout’s first book since her 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “Olive Kitteridge,” and her extraordinary narrative gifts are evident again.
“Olive Kitteridge” is built on the scaffolding of separate short stories that, to lesser or greater degrees, involve the title character, a teacher in a coastal Maine town. “The Burgess Boys” follows a more traditional, more sweeping novelistic track, with the marital discord and conflicted feelings of the Burgess brothers set around their attempts to help a young nephew avoid jail.
Like Olive, who can be stern and not necessarily likable, the Burgess brothers are not depicted in a wholly agreeable light but become unforgettably alive to the reader. They have their foibles from the start: Bob, who is divorced and a bit sloppy, drinks and worries too much; Jim, married to a discontented heiress, is self-absorbed and belittles Bob, whom he calls “slob-dog.”
Their sister, Bob’s twin Susan, also divorced, lives in a cold, quiet house in Maine with her friendless teenage son, Zach — the nephew who lands in serious legal trouble, even facing a possible hate crime charge, after throwing a frozen pig’s head into the mosque of Somali immigrants.
The cultural chasm between white Maine locals and dark-skinned Muslims, along with efforts by both sides to bridge the distance, is a developing element throughout the book. But the distance between Bob and Jim — painfully wide at times, lovingly close as well and turning on “a terrible secret” from childhood — gives the novel a level of intrigue and human depth with lasting impact.
Strout’s writing style is all her own, at times almost effortlessly fluid, with superbly rendered dialogue, sudden and unexpected bolts of humor and, just as a scene seems to be low-key, carried away by startling riffs of gripping emotion.
Many sections open with descriptions of sunlight or the deepening darkness of nightfall, as if to set the scene with a prose painting of the surroundings. These invariably are keen, lovely lines, such as this one describing the bustling Park Slope neighborhood in Brooklyn where Jim and Bob settled: “The autumn clouds, magnificent in their variegated darkness, were being spread apart by the wind, and great streaks of sunshine splashed down on the buildings on Seventh Avenue.”
It’s not clear why the narrator is a woman from the Burgess hometown in Maine, the fictional Shirley Falls, who was younger than the brothers but heard gossip about the childhood accident that killed their father. When she decides to write their story, even her mother voices doubt: “You don’t know them,” she said. “Nobody ever knows anyone.”
Maybe so. But Strout knows and vividly evokes the territory of Maine and New York City, her characters, their inner lives and fears and — beyond the saga of a family in crisis — the healing power of mercy.
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