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THE BURGESS BOYS by Elizabeth Strout

THE BURGESS BOYS

By Elizabeth Strout

Pub Date: March 26th, 2013
ISBN: 978-1-4000-6768-8
Publisher: Random House

Two squabbling brothers confront their demons, their crumbling love lives and a hate crime case that thrusts them back to their Maine roots.

The titular boys of this follow-up to Strout’s Pulitzer-winning 2008 short story collection, Olive Kitteridge, are Jim and Bob Burgess, who are similar on the surface—lawyers, New Yorkers—but polar opposites emotionally. Jim is a high-wattage trial attorney who’s quick with a cruel rejoinder designed to put people in their place, while Bob is a divorcé who works for Legal Aid and can’t shake the guilt of killing his dad in a freak accident as a child. The two snap into action when their sister’s son in their native Maine is apprehended for throwing a pig’s head into a mosque. The scenario gives Strout an opportunity to explore the culture of the Somalis who have immigrated to the state in recent years—a handful of scenes are told from the perspective of a Somali cafe owner, baffled by American arrogance, racism and cruelty. But this is mainly a carefully manicured study of domestic (American and household) dysfunction with some rote messages about the impermanence of power and the goodness that resides in hard-luck souls—it gives nothing away to say that Jim comes to a personal reckoning and that Bob isn’t quite the doormat he’s long been thought to be. Speeding the plot turns along are Jim’s wife, Helen, an old-money repository of white guilt, and Jim and Bob’s sister, Susan, a hardscrabble repository of parental anxiety. Strout’s writing is undeniably graceful and observant: She expertly captures the frenetic pace of New York and relative sluggishness of Maine. But her character arrangements often feel contrived, archetypal and predestined; Jim’s in particular becomes a clichéd symbol of an overinflated ego.

A skilled but lackluster novel that dutifully ticks off the boxes of family strife, infidelity and ripped-from-the-headlines issues.