Reader’s Journal: The Burgess Boys

Let me begin by saying, I loved Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge. Olive Kitteridge was essentially a novel in stories that involved the title character, so what emerged at the book’s end was the story of a life from many viewpoints. As a character, as a person, or however one chooses to think of her, Olive Kitteridge was not an entirely likable woman, but she was interesting and complicated in her own way. I knew some people and some reviewers who were bored by that book, and they were generally people who believe something has to happen, as if life isn’t enough action in and of itself.

I wonder if that criticism of Olive Kitteridge—nothing happens—wasn’t on Strout’s mind when she sat down to write The Burgess Boys. She won the Pulitzer for Olive Kitteridge, so it’s hard to imagine she was worried about her critics. Perhaps she just wanted to try her hand at something new. The Burgess Boys is a curious mixture of things, and it never quite seems to make up its mind what it wants to be. At the center are the Burgess boys, Jim and Bob, and Bob’s hapless twin sister Susan. Their relationships are shaped—and strained in many ways—by an early family tragedy: they were playing in the parked family car when it was knocked out of gear and rolled down a hill and killed their father. Bob is thought to be the responsible party, and he carries the burden around like a child with a threadbare favorite toy. To be fair, his older brother Jim, a famous, successful Manhattan lawyer married to a wealthy socialite, never really lets him forget it. The dynamic and the differences between these two are just a little bit too pat—Bob, the kind but hapless sad-sack, divorced and and borderline alcoholic, who works for legal aid, and Jim, rich and powerful, with a full family life, who’s a proverbial master of the universe.

Although plenty happens in The Burgess Boys, the action doesn’t kick off right away. Instead, the novel opens with a prologue narrated in the first person by a woman from the Burgess’ hometown of Shirley Falls, Maine. The woman explains that she and her mother would discuss the Burgess kids with some frequency over the years, that it was a neutral topic to which they would return when things were strained between them, and near the end of the prologue the woman tells her mother she has decided to write their story. I suppose what follows in the novel is what the woman wrote, but I found it a very curious opening. It serves well enough to provide some necessary backstory on the Burgess family, and to set some general ideas in the reader’s mind, specifically the general distrust or dislike that certain New Englanders hold for New York City. The problem for me was that Strout introduced a compelling narrative voice in the prologue, and then promptly dumped it once the story began. I kept waiting for Strout to return to the woman, but eventually it dawned on me that the prologue was nothing more than a device to introduce information that probably could have been worked into the narrative in a more compelling way.

The Burgess story itself begins when Bob and Jim learn about an incident involving Susan’s son Zachary, who has thrown a pig’s head into the mosque in Shirley Falls. The act is viewed as a hate crime against the many Somali refugees who have taken up residence in the town, and it draws national attention. The events are told in alternating third-person points of view, shifting between Bob, Jim’s wife Helen, Susan, Bob’s ex-wife Pam, and a Somali refugee named Abdikarim. Rather than giving the reader a full picture of events comprised from different points of view, this technique serves to make the novel all the more disjointed. The characters come across more as types than as people, and the novel swerves between sweeping family drama and political commentary. If Strout had committed to one or the other, the story probably would have been much stronger, but instead she seems to hedge. With the hate crime and the shifting points of view, I thought Strout was setting us up for her version of a Tom Wolfe type commentary, but the incident sort of fades away near the middle, and we are left to watch some not-so-compelling characters flounder in the face of other life events.

This book ultimately frustrated me. Strout is such a terrifically insightful writer, and her prose is clean and natural, but the story simply never came together for me. Not only were the characters stock, but several events are too neatly resolved while others are simply unbelievable. For example—and I suppose this might be a spoiler so fair warning—at one point Zach, whom as far as we know has never set foot outside the state of Maine, somehow manages to leave the country to go live in Sweden with a father he has not seen in seven years. I suppose we are to assume that his powerful Uncle Jim arranged it all, but it simply seemed unbelievable.

If The Burgess Boys had simply been a family drama where “nothing happens,” focused deeply on one or two characters, I think it would have been a far more satisfying book. From reading Amy & Isabelle and Olive Kitteridge, I know she is a master at creating believable, well-drawn characters, especially characters who come from small towns and lead quiet lives. In The Burgess Boys, I can’t tell if she’s out of her depth with characters such as Abdikarim, who seems stock, even for all the detail Strout gives about the Somali community and their struggles, and Helen, who comes across as selfish, shallow, and smug for much of the book. Especially in the case of Helen, Jim, and Pam, it’s as if she agrees with characters in the book who believe New York is full of strivers who aren’t “real people.” The happy endings are reserved for those who return to their roots or who know their place, whether it’s high or low on the class scale. I gave it 2/5 stars on Goodreads.

Full disclosure: I received my copy of The Burgess Boys from NetGalley.

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