The Burgess Boys

The Burgess Boys - Elizabeth Strout 3.5 star read

Imagine a life that has always been defined by one horrific and tragic moment. Imagine a life that has always been overshadowed by the success of a sibling. That is the life of Bob Burgess. Jim Burgess is the older, smarter, and successful brother. Susan Burgess is Bob's twin sister and alone in her own unhappiness. She’s also a divorcee raising her son back in their rural hometown, Shirley Falls, Maine. Bob and Jim have both left Maine and are practicing lawyers residing in New York. Jim has a lovely wife, three children, and a job at a prestigious law firm but is an overbearing and rather obnoxious person . . . especially to his family. Bob is divorced, living alone in a small and empty apartment, childless and works at Legal Aid. Bob adores, if not idolizes his older brother and has for as long as he can remember. That will all change when the Burgess boys are called back to Maine to help their nephew Zach on a legal matter. (Zach throws a frozen pig's head into a mosque during a prayer service, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadhan.) When it appears that Zach may be charged federally with a hate crime, he runs away, leaves the country and joins his father in Sweden. Susan is bereft at his departure and must learn to cope with his absence. Bob worries that he may be branded a fugitive and only wants to make things as easy as possible for both Zach and Susan. Jim seems to only care that he has put his neck and reputation on the line. These three differing views on one simple action show the true nature of these siblings.

On the surface The Burgess Boys is about family and what we are willing to do to support our families. Underneath, it is also about family dysfunction and touches on prejudice, racism, narcissism, depression, infidelity, and responsibility. Ms. Strout has presented a story that almost defies explanation due to the simplicity of the heart of the story and the complex interactions among all of the Burgesses, their friends, coworkers and associates. Bob and Jim's relationship suffers and seems to breakdown in the latter half of the book, mirroring other relationship breakdowns due to lies and half-truths. The reader is given a glimpse into the minds of Susan, Bob and Jim, as well as Jim's wife Helen, and Susan's son Zach. More importantly we are also given a glimpse into how things appear from an alternate point of view, that of Abdikarim Ahmed, a Somali refugee and elder in the Muslim community in Shirley Falls. He provides a nice balance to Zach's story.

I didn't find this to be an easy read, nor a particular enjoyable read since it deals with some dark and disturbing issues (depression, alcoholism, prejudice, etc.). The major characters, the Burgess siblings, all have flaws and major issues to overcome. Some flaws and issues are dealt with realistically and others seem a bit contrived. At times, I felt that some of the characters were becoming cartoonish caricatures rather than individuals (namely Jim and Helen). Even with these limitations, I think The Burgess Boys is a story that makes the reader to think. And isn't that what literature is all about?