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The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout
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The Burgess Boys (2013)

by Elizabeth Strout

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“The Burgess boys rode up the turnpike as twilight arrived. It arrived gently, the sky remaining a soft blue as the trees along either side of the unfolding pavement darkened. Then the sinking sun sent up a spread of lavender and yellow, and the horizon line seemed cracked open to give a peek at the heavens far beyond. Thin clouds became pink and stayed that way, until finally darkness emerged, almost complete. The brothers had spoken little ..." (Ch 10)

Growing up in Shirley Falls, rural Maine, the Burgess children, eldest Jim and twins Bob and Susan, suffer a traumatic accident in childhood which results in the loss of a parent. Expectedly, the children all manage the trauma very differently, but its effects follow them into adulthood – and the incident, by tacit agreement, is never acknowledged. Jim becomes the classic over-achiever – class president, athlete, hot-shot criminal attorney. Bob, a public advocate, has a heart which knows no bounds; generous and compassionate to a fault, he is vulnerable, easily hurt, and easily dismissed. And Susan is – afloat, lost. She is the child and also the adult nobody really cares for; “and then she had that nutty son.”

When Zachary, Susan’s teenage son, commits a criminal act, the Burgess boys, both living in New York City these past many years, return to Shirley Falls, the home town only Susan never left, in an effort to support. But the siblings aren’t up to the task – they are solitaries, each floundering for a secure footing in life, despite any appearances to the contrary. As Jim, sharp and cruel, verbalizes, “Everything to do with this family depresses me profoundly." (Ch 10) What’s more, the return to Shirley Falls perpetrates the disclosure of a long-guarded secret about the family’s shared trauma which will change all of their lives.

Strout writes beautifully, as evidenced in the opening quotation, about relatable characters I will not soon forget. She skillfully integrates her central theme here – that search for a place to belong and be safe – into not only the story of The Burgess Boys, but into the immigrant experience and racial friction evidenced in rural Maine. Highly recommended! ( )
8 vote lit_chick | Jul 22, 2014 |
Although this novel started slowly, it was an excellent read. As I became engrossed with the story of the Maine Burgess family and the death that haunted them, I could not put the book down. The intersection of the New England siblings, their spouses and the Somalian refugees who settle in a small Maine city was a fascinating story. ( )
  Amusedbythis | Jul 19, 2014 |
I appreciated the gem-like stories in Olive Kitteridge, and the author has enough writing chops to possibly keep you slogging through this one, but this is not a good book. The plot is driven by an event that strains credulity and no satisfying reason for it is ever given. This apparently was supposed to be a book of ideas, exploring the immigrant experience (Somalia to Maine, Maine to New York), but somehow plot and well-developed characters got left out. Lots and lots of "telling" rather than "showing." There's a prologue that adds nothing and makes the omniscient narrator point of view seem very odd for the rest of the book.

Also, I'm guessing the author isn't a parent and doesn't spend time around teenagers. The young man saves printouts of emails from his father? A girlfriend chastises her boyfriend's parents--the first time she meets them--for sending him to a camp that he hated when he was a kid? A lot of stuff like that happens that would never really happen in the real world just to advance the disjointed plot.

She's a good enough writer that I was left with the feeling that these were real people, but that they weren't well served by the person they hired to ghost write their family story. It reads like a somewhat promising first draft. ( )
  Amniot | May 23, 2014 |
The Burgess Boys include the rich, respected. temperamental married NYC lawyer Jim and his younger brother, the more even-tempered, somewhat goofy, divorced NYC appellate lawyer Bob. Both "escaped" from their hometown in Maine, where their sister Susan (Bob's twin) and her son Zach still reside. They have a sad stark existence since Steve (the husband/father) abandoned them to live in Sweden.

The book pivots around an incident where 17-year-old Zach rolls a pig's head down the aisle of a Muslim mosque where many Somalis had settled to escape the politics in their own country. Zach is charged first with a misdemeanor and later with a hate crime. Jim and Bob return to their home town to support their sister and nephew.

Jim has always bullied Bob. Susan has always been sullen and removed. Bob has always been goofy, having been blamed for killing his father (putting a car into gear when he was 4). Along the way, Jim exposes himself as the real person responsible for their father's death. Even Susan believes she might have done it. No one remembers for sure, but Bob has shouldered the guilt - or so he thought.

Each of the main characters comes to realize that it doesn't matter who did it; they are family. The incident influenced all their lives; time to move on and make lives for themselves.

(I suspect a second book about this family will follow…just thinking.)
  Kelslynn | May 19, 2014 |
Elizabeth Strout “animates the ordinary with an astonishing force,” wrote The New Yorker on the publication of her Pulitzer Prize–winning Olive Kitteridge. The San Francisco Chronicle praised Strout’s “magnificent gift for humanizing characters.” Now the acclaimed author returns with a stunning novel as powerful and moving as any work in contemporary literature.

Haunted by the freak accident that killed their father when they were children, Jim and Bob Burgess escaped from their Maine hometown of Shirley Falls for New York City as soon as they possibly could. Jim, a sleek, successful corporate lawyer, has belittled his bighearted brother their whole lives, and Bob, a Legal Aid attorney who idolizes Jim, has always taken it in stride. But their long-standing dynamic is upended when their sister, Susan—the Burgess sibling who stayed behind—urgently calls them home. Her lonely teenage son, Zach, has gotten himself into a world of trouble, and Susan desperately needs their help. And so the Burgess brothers return to the landscape of their childhood, where the long-buried tensions that have shaped and shadowed their relationship begin to surface in unexpected ways that will change them forever.

With a rare combination of brilliant storytelling, exquisite prose, and remarkable insight into character, Elizabeth Strout has brought to life two deeply human protagonists whose struggles and triumphs will resonate with readers long after they turn the final page. Tender, tough-minded, loving, and deeply illuminating about the ties that bind us to family and home, The Burgess Boys is Elizabeth Strout’s newest and perhaps most astonishing work of literary art. (amazon.com) ( )
1 vote lmbigens | May 10, 2014 |
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To my husband

Jim Tierney
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My mother and I talked a lot about the Burgess Family. "The Burgess kids," she called them.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Blurbers
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Haunted by a freak accident that killed their father when they were children, Jim and Bob Burgess escaped from their Maine hometown of Shirley Falls for New York City as soon as they possible could. Jim, a sleek, successful corporate lawyer, has belittled his bighearted brother their whole lives, and Bob, a legal aid attorney who idolises Jim, has always taken it in his stride.

But their long-standing dynamic is upended when their sister, Susan - the sibling who stayed behind - urgently calls them home. Her lonely teenage son, Zach, has landed himself into a world of trouble, and Susan desperately needs their help. And so the Burgess brothers return to the landscape of their childhood, where the long-buried tensions that have shaped and shadowed their relationship begin to surface in unexpected ways that will change them forever.
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Catalyzed by a nephew's thoughtless prank, a pair of brothers confront painful psychological issues surrounding the freak accident that killed their father when they were boys, a loss linked to a heartbreaking deception that shaped their personal and professional lives.… (more)

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