My first experience of Elizabeth Strout’s fiction was with Olive Kitteridge, a collection of linked stories set in Maine, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009. I applauded that decision, impressed as I was with Strout’s penetrating insights into human emotions, into the ways we sometimes act harshly when we don’t mean it, the ways we hold the ones we love at arm’s length. She also tells a good story in a quiet, unexpected way that’s very different from much of today’s fiction. And she is skilled at making readers come to like characters who at first seem anything but likable – a talent I kept in mind as I started Strout’s latest novel.
By Linda C. Brinson
THE BURGESS BOYS. By Elizabeth Strout. Random House Audio. Read by Cassandra Campbell. 13 ½ hours, 11 CDs. $45. Also available in print from Random House, $26.
The Burgess boys and their sister grew up in a family that seems about as cold as the Maine landscape that surrounded them. All three were marked by a terrible accident that killed their father when they were young children.
The brothers escaped from the stultifying confines of Shirley Falls as soon as possible, eventually making their ways in New York City, with markedly different degrees of apparent success. Jim, the oldest sibling, is a big-time lawyer who became famous as the successful defense attorney in a celebrity trial. He has a rich wife, well-adjusted college-age children and a storybook life. Bob, the younger brother and the twin of Susan, is a Legal Aid lawyer, divorced and childless, who drinks a bit too much.
Susan stayed in Shirley Falls, where she struggles along in a house she keeps too cold, with an elderly widow as a roomer upstairs. Her husband abandoned her to find his roots in Sweden, leaving her to cope with their odd, lonely son.
Jim is the star in the family, famous in his hometown and state, looked up to and depended upon by Bob and Susan even in middle age – and even though he’s habitually obnoxious and selfish. Jim is especially cruel to Bob, forever belittling him, calling him “Slob Dog,” making fun of his more modest lifestyle.
Bob sees Jim and Jim’s wife, Helen, often enough in New York to be a part of their lives, albeit a second-class part. Neither brother has much to do with Susan.
One seemingly inexplicable action sets in motion profound changes in this uneasy, unpleasant family circle. Susan’s son Zach, a lost teenager not long out of high school, rolls a bloody pig’s head into a makeshift mosque. Somali refugees have flocked to Shirley Falls, to the consternation of many of the town’s longtime residents. Zach’s action – ill-considered prank? hate crime? – makes national news and attracts activists across the political spectrum to their small Maine town.
Of course, Susan calls on Jim, the famous lawyer, for help. But Jim, about to leave for a vacation, agrees to make some phone calls and let Bob be the one to head to Shirley Falls. Bob, of course, doesn’t handle things to the satisfaction of Jim, or of Susan, who borders on being as hostile to her twin as their older brother is.
That initial visit is only the first of several trips the brothers must make to Shirley Falls before all the repercussions of Zach’s action play out. Federal and state civil-rights and hate-crime charges loom. What Zach did, and especially the national attention it attracted, mobilizes demonstrations and counter-demonstrations.
The Burgess boys, rallying to help family, however begrudgingly, are drawn back to Shirley Falls and into the lives of their sister and nephew. They find themselves revisiting the past, including the freak accident that took their father’s life and left more than enough guilt to haunt all three children for the rest of their lives.
Meanwhile, life goes on, with unexpected ripples touching the lives of the Burgess siblings and their wider circles of family, ex-family and associates.
Once again, Elizabeth Strout does a remarkable job of helping us to get to know the real people beneath the sometimes prickly or otherwise unpleasant selves her characters show the world. And it is not only the readers who come to a better understanding of the people in this novel; in many cases, the characters themselves gain deeper understanding, and some of them manage to make important changes in their lives.
At the book’s opening, the main characters are so flawed that Strout borders on giving us no one to like or care about. But, as with sometimes-difficult real-life family members, there’s enough that’s human and touching in the Burgess family to keep us reading (or listening) until we can begin to see beneath the surface.
She develops the novel beautifully, through multiple perspectives, including that of some of the Somalis at the center of the crisis that has such an effect on the Burgess family. We are reminded that things more often than not are more complex than they seem.
This novel that starts out seeming so cold and barren eventually offers warmth and rich insights into family, home and relationships.
Cassandra Campbell does a fine reading job, bringing various characters to life convincingly. Her Maine accents, especially, seemed authentic, at least to my Southern ears.