Friday, May 24, 2013

The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout


The Burgess Boys
by Elizabeth Strout
Random House, 2013
336 pages

Summary from Goodreads:

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.

My thoughts:

Family roles, assigned early and sometimes arbitrarily, often continue to define us well into adulthood. I grew up as "the musician" and "bookworm" in a family of athletes (not entirely unwarranted labels) and am still never the first choice in a family pick-up game of basketball or softball. For the record though, I love sports and relish the role of fan/spectator.

In the Burgess family, the roles were dictated by tragedy. A freak accident involving three young children in a parked car caused the death of their father. The lives of all three children, now well into middle age, have been defined by the official family account of the accident. As a new family crisis calls the brother back to Maine, difficult truths emerge, forcing a reevaluation of old assumptions and challenging the Burgess boys  to move forward.

I've been reading Elizabeth Strout since Amy and Isabelle  was published in the late 1990's and have been in awe of her writing and characters ever since. Strout's perception into the human psyche is amazingly keen. She understands what makes people who they are and how it colors their relationships with others. In The Burgess Boys, the sibling relationship takes center stage.

Jim and Bob Burgess, unlikable as they may be, are presented with the utmost compassion and honesty.  Other characters, like Bob's twin Susan and her son Zach, Jim's wife, Bob's ex, and Somali immigrant Abdikarim Ahmed, receive similar treatment. By the end of the novel, it was hard to say good-bye to these people. In fact, I'd still like to check in and see how they're doing. Elizabeth Strout has taught me that a truly great writer can make you care about characters, even when you don't particularly like them.

A few favorite quotes:
"How could he describe what he felt? The unfurling of an ache so poignant it was almost erotic, this longing, the inner silent gasp as though in the face of something unutterably beautiful, the desire to put his head down on the big loose lap of this town, Shirley Falls." p. 53 
"While the Burgesses seemed to have no knowledge of, or interest in, food (there were meals of scrambled hamburger covered with an unmelted sheet of orange cheese, or a tuna casserole made with canned soup, or a chicken roasted without any spices, not even salt), Pam discovered that they loved baked goods, and so she made banana bread and sugar cookies, and sometimes Susan stood in the small kitchen and helped her, and whatever was baked was eaten hungrily, and this touched Pam as well - as though these kids had been starved all their lives for sweetness." p.107 
"He carried also a disquieting idea, which was that he was a stranger now to the place that had been for so long his home. He was not a visitor; neither did he feel himself to be a New Yorker. New York, he thought, had been for him, like an amiable and complex hotel that housed him with benign indifference, and his gratitude was immeasurable. New York had also shown him things; one of the biggest was how much people talked. People talked about anything. The Burgesses did not." p.233 
"He understood they would probably never again discuss the death of their father. The facts didn't matter. Their stories mattered, and each of their stories belonged to each of them alone." p. 318
My rating:



Bottom line:
While not quite Olive Kitteridge (a Pulitzer Prize winner and personal all-time favorite), The Burgess Boys  still deserves a solid four star rating and my recommendation.

FTC disclosure:  James, who knows I'm a big Elizabeth Strout fan, sent me his ARC - thank you! A couple of weeks later, I received a hardcover copy from Random House. Watch for a giveaway post coming tomorrow.

30 comments:

  1. Somehow I think Elizabeth Strout would strike me as too "artsy" but these days, anything not YA can seem too much for me! :--)

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    1. Jill - There are times when only YA will do ;-)

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  2. I really like Strout's insight and characters too, but the second half of this novel did not work for me. I think I'll read Amy and Isabelle next and see how I fare with that one. Glad you liked it!

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    1. Nomadreader - Sorry this wasn't for you. It's been ages since I read Amy and Isabelle, but it was a really impressive debut and my book club had a very lively discussion. I recently picked up a copy of her second novel, Abide with Me, and plan to read it sometime this summer. I love Strout's writing!

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  3. I love character driven books and this sounds really good with one of my favorite locales. I have Olive Kitteridge Think I'll make it my next book!

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    1. Peggy Ann - I fall for a Maine setting every time! Olive Kitteridge is amazing... be warned that it is loosely connected stores and not exactly a novel.

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  4. They sent you a hardcover!!! I'm glad to see you enjoyed it. I think she is someone I'll always look forward to reading.

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    1. James - It was funny how that happened, too. RH was trolling blogs in preparation of Anna Quindlen's paperback release of Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake (which I loved) and must have come across my auto-buy author post which also listed Elizabeth Strout. I mentioned in that post that I couldn't wait for The Burgess Boys, so they emailed and asked if I'd like a copy. It had already been released, so I guess it was too late for an ARC. Thanks again for sending me your copy... my sister is going to read it next!

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  5. I totally agree with your take about her writing an unlikeable character but yet still convincing you to care! I felt that way about Olive! This one is on my to-read list!

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    1. Staci - Wasn't Olive amazing? This one isn't quite in that category, but still well worth the read.

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  6. This is exactly how I felt after "Olive Kitteredge" and Strout is making me feel the same way again.

    "a truly great writer can make you care about characters, even when you don't particularly like them."

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    1. Lisa - Can't wait to hear what you think ... we'll talk when you're finished!

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  7. I'm so glad to see you liked this! I haven't heard much about it on other blogs or from readers at the library. I have a copy that I want to read this summer. I think Strout is a phenomenal author and I love her characters.

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    1. Anbolyn - This didn't have quite the same impact as Olive Kitteridge, but I could read Strout's writing forever. Her characters are unforgettable!

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  8. I think this will be a great match for me. I have it here waiting ... must get to it soon!

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    1. Bath F - Hope you enjoy it, too. Strout is one of my favorites.

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  9. Such an interesting, but painful, theme. My son and I lost his father while he was quite young, and though I have mostly recovered from it, I know he has not. He had a rebellious youth, and is now working things out in the Marine Corps. I'm proud of him, but I know there are unresolved issues for him; I'd love to read this book because the issues seem a bit similar. Great, clear, inspiring review!

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    1. Bellezza - Given your experience, I'd be very interested in your take on this novel. Strout has a rare combination of perceptiveness/insight and the ability to translate it into stunning prose.

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  10. I'm glad to hear you liked it. I've been hearing a lot of mixed things from customers and getting your perspective is important to me, because we overlap in taste a lot of the time. If you liked it, I bet I will too!

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    1. Marie - I think the mixed opinions come from people expecting another Olive Kitteridge. It lacks that 'something really special/magical' that made Olive such a success, but is still immensely readable...and I just love Strout's writing!

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  11. Enjoyed your review. There are mixed reviews in the British media. I'll be reading it though because I do like her writing.

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    1. Vintage Reading - The reviews seem to be mixed here, too, but I love Strout's writing. It was a hit for me!

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  12. As you know I enjoyed Burgess Boys too, but it sounds like Olive is something special above and beyond this. I really must read it soon!

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    1. Brona - Oh, yes..you MUST read Olive Kiteridge. It's one of my all-time favorites!

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  13. Great review JoAnn! I have this one on my reading list but haven't gotten to it yet. I'm glad to hear you enjoyed it. I liked Olive Kitteridge but didn't love it. Still I want to give this one a try.

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    1. Darlene - Strout's writing makes this book! Hope you get a chance to give it a try. My give away is good for both US and Canada, so leave me a comment if you'd like to enter.












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  14. I haven't read Strout, yet. I love books about family dynamics. Maybe because I was an only child? I'll have to give this one a try.

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    1. Stacy - I hope you get a chance to read Strout. She's one of my favorite writers!

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  15. Yes, I need to put this author on my must-read-more list

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    1. Care - Strout is a favorite. I loved Olive Kitteridge! It's been a long time, but I remember enjoying Amy and Isabelle when I read it for book club. This summer I'll be reading her second novel, Abide With Me.

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