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Overview 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 longstanding dynamic is upended when their sister, Susanâ€”the Burgess sibling who stayed behindâ€”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 Stroutâ€™s newest and perhaps most astonishing work of literary art.
Reviews Elizabeth Strout has written another novel about Maine and its people, but unlike Olive Kittredge, which is more episodic, The Burgess Boys is a tightly woven novel about a family, its secrets, and how the guilt of one brother has defined his life, as well as that of his twin sister, their older brother, their spouses, and their children. It also traces downward spirals--some expected, some not--and the possibility (and limits) of change and redemption.
Shirley Falls, Maine, home to many displaced Somalis, experiences a prank that is to be prosecuted as a hate crime. Jim Burgess, famous trial lawyer and Bob Burgess, appeals lawyer, must return to the town from their homes in Brooklyn and help out their sister, Susan, whose son, Zach, has admitted to the crime. The siblings fall into the roles they had as children: Jim, the wisecracking, critical older brother, Bob: the schmuck, and Susan: the needy one who never could get herself organized.
It is not an exaggeration to say that the plot is Shakespearean in scope. I could compare it to A Thousand Acres, by Jane Smiley. It is a real tour de force, and is one of the best novels I have read this year. I'll be recommending it to all adult library patrons and will make sure our library buys several copies. This novel poses a major question: Do you understand that other guy, that other woman? Are you sure?
The book hit me between the eyes with the uncomfortable notion that we are imprisoned by our culture-- yes our beloved Thanksgivings and Christmases, our
Midnight Masses, our Fourths-of-July, our sacred Yankees or Red Sox. It's all wonderful even as it blinds us.
For me, the book is all about understanding that other guy. Hell, the Burgesses are family and they struggle with the issue among themselves. They do not really know one another. To be fair, it's a fragmented family. The brothers Jim and Bob and sister Susan carry all the baggage that dysfunction can possibly bring-- and then some.
But if you don't know your brother or sister, how do you understand a stranger from a foreign culture? In The Burgess Boys the problem is compounded by a myriad of culture-clashes, including these:
Americans vs. Somali immigrants Shirley Falls, Maine vs. New York City Open-minded people vs. xenophobic skinheads Traditional Somalis vs. Somali Bantus
Ms.Strout is a terrific story-teller. Her prose just rolls along, elegant and simple. Her ear for dialogue is pitch-perfect and her characters are genuine-- they love and hate, they celebrate; sometimes they just make it through the day. When the world knocks them down they get back up. When the world is ugly they look the gray rat in the eye. The Burgess siblings, now in their fifties, carry an immense burden from their childhood. I don't think I'm giving much away when I say that a dysfunction-be-damned determination enables them to persevere.
On a happier note the story has a hero, an elderly Somali gentleman who brings to America enough compassion and wisdom to transcend culture.
There is a very nice prologue to the book where we meet the narrator and her mother, both natives of Shirley Falls. If you read the book, be sure to revisit the prologue upon completion. Mom and daughter gossip about the Burgess boys. In a nice piece of foreshadowing, daughter tells Mom that she will tell the story of that family. She laments that "People will say it's not nice to write about people I know."
Her mother replies, "Well you don't know them. Nobody ever knows anyone." The Burgess brothers find themselves in a few troubles personal, marital, and with family members. Their nephew, their sisterâ€™s son, takes up most of this story due to having himself involved in a very troubling incident. This incident has me thinking of that Godfather movie where one man wakes up in his bed to find a head of a horse in his bed, imagine the shock and horror he felt at the grotesque and also the message the head carried. The Burgess brothers find themselves helping their sister in defending her son in a quite serious situation that seemed to present an action of religious hate. The said boy has he own family problems as his Burgess mother is divorced, and as any divided family he is not content as he could be due to some rather ignorant advice from his father on an ethnic minority that seemed to be part of a great influx in his town he took about himself partaking in this ungodly action. The boy was ignorant of the ramifications of this action and finds himself amidst a possible incarceration and a community uproar against religious and racial hate. While this problem hits the Burgessâ€™s some find they have their own marriage and love life, in past and present, to brood over or keep their grips on. There is a few likeable characters here, Bob Burgess seems to have captured a few readers attention. The author has done well in here tackling marriage and family, the refugees dilemma and the cultural differences of people and the problems they face in trying to get along together. This story was a good read with well done characters, writing and content to keep you hooked with plenty of food for thought. Wow. I had the luxury of listening to this book, and it was wonderful. I cannot wait to sit down and read it. Strout writes beautifully, and at times I felt that someone was in my ear reading poetry, the words are so lyrical and beautiful.
But that's just the wonderous icing on this story cake. The characters in this story are so well developed that you really know them. "The Burgess Boys" Although I'm done with the book, I'm worried about Jim and Bob, Susan and Zach, even Helen and Pam. I want to contact someone in the family and check on everyone...that is how attached I became to "The Burgess Boys" and the rest of the clan as I read this wonderful book. Strout did a phenomenal job with "Olive Kitteridge" and managed to do create the same character magic in "The Burgess Boys". With so many characters there is a chance that one or two won't be well developed, but even the 'minor' characters have incredible depth. We
see the Burgess family at the height of their jerkiness, each in a different way, and we see them all find their way back to humanity, realizing that family does best when they work together.
We learn a little about Maine and its epic struggle to hang onto its identity while accepting immigrants, something with which Maine seems to have trouble, stretching back to French Canadian loggers and Swedish factory workers who came to Maine for jobs to modern day Somalis fleeing a war torn county.
This is the story of family, and what people will do for family. There are times in the Burgess family lives when they can't stand each other, but they come together because they need each other. Each member of the family falls way down into the pit of despair, but they make it back up into the good parts of life. This isn't a happy ending story, but it's not a sad ending either. It's an ending to a part of life, and that means there's some good and some bad.
Definitely read, or listen to, "The Burgess Boys". And if you haven't done it yet, check out "Olive Kitteridge". You won't be disappointed. This book seeped into my bones as I read it. It is subtle, messy, and powerful, full of people being people, hard to pin down, always changing, observing little things that turn out to be big things, and experiencing big things that just fizz out over time. The author writes well about two places she seems to know best: New York City and Maine, and, of course, the long road between the two. You feel like you know the Burgess boys, as if they were people you knew in high school or maybe lived down the street. Which is why the prologue, with the narrator talking to her mother from Maine about people and what they're doing, is such a perfect start to the story, as the Burgess boys are referred to in idle gossip before you actually meet them and are pulled into their real world of sibling rivalry, success, disappointment, family and everything else that makes a life. It's the little things that create the picture here, often a fleeting thought or observation by one of the characters. Sometimes several characters will occupy a single paragraph as they move simultaneously through the same world but separately. One of the biggest themes in the novel is change. How do the people of Shirley Falls, Maine deal with the Somalis who have moved into their dying city? How do the Somalis deal with the world they've moved into? There is the incident that brings the brothers back to Maine and their sister, and then how each deals with the events that unfold, coming together, falling apart, and coming together again after a strange shift in the family dynamic. It's this shift that brings you back to the idle gossip in the prologue to realize how a few words about someone you knew can never tell the whole story
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