A Review of Elizabeth Strout’s The Burgess Boys

There’s a debate that takes place in many book clubs when it’s time to pick a new novel. Should we read something that’s difficult either in subject or style or something that’s enjoyable? Some people just want to read books that are fun, quick and easy; others want to read “serious” books by “serious” authors.

Elizabeth Strout’s The Burgess Boys is not fun, although it was relatively easy reading because the author smartly tells the story from several different viewpoints and keeps her chapters short. The story is about two brothers––one rich and famous, the other divorced, stuck and unhappy––and how their lives are turned upside down when they are called upon to help their nineteen-year-old nephew Zack who has caused an uproar when he threw a frozen pig’s head into a mosque back in their small Maine hometown––a city whose population has grown in recent years due to an influx of Somali refugees.

Neither brother, nor three main women in the story––Zack’s mother Susan, who is Bob Burgess’ twin; Helen, who is Jim Burgess’ wife; Pam, who is Bob’s ex-wife––are characters with whom you will empathize. Each, like Bob, is stuck in a life to which they aren’t particularly reconciled, but along with the brothers, the women’s lives will be impacted by the Maine crisis.

Strout does a good job of showing the Maine community responding to the “hate crime”––in particular telling us how the event and subsequent attempts to heal the community feel from the viewpoint of a Somali shop-owner. The Somali character is nuanced and we are pleased when he comes to an unexpected resolution, but the story is primarily about middle-aged Bob Burgess.

For all of his adult life, Bob has had to carry around the belief that his actions at age four led to his father’s death. That event paralyzed him to a large extent, allowing him to accept his older brother’s unkind teasing as well as the decision of his ex-wife to leave him because he wasn’t able to give her children. Bob is shown to be kind and so we begin to root for him. Jim is Bob’s opposite and we pray that he’ll get his just deserts.

My one criticism is that there are a number of points where this reader strained to buy into the facts of the story, starting with the pig-throwing incident. I’d have been more inclined to believe Zack’s having written “Somalis Go Home” on the building than his tossing a frozen pig’s head through their window, but that would not have given him the plausible deniability he claimed under oath that he didn’t know the building was a mosque.

If you like stories about middle-aged people, about rural versus urban America, about the clash of cultures and generations, then add The Burgess Boys to your to-read list.

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