Published by Random House on Mar. 2013
In the wake of the freak accident that killed their father when they were children, Jim and Bob Burgess couldn’t leave their small Maine hometown of Shirely Falls soon enough. Now living in New York City, Jim is a successful corporate lawyer with a wife and college-age children, and Bob is a childless, divorced Legal Aid attorney who spends most of his evenings drinking alone in his apartment. The two brothers have settled into a dynamic of Bob admiring Jim and Jim treating Bob like garbage, but their uncomfortable routine is shaken up when their sister Susan, who remains in Shirley Falls, calls them in a panic.
Shirley Falls has become a sort of haven for Somali refugees, and Susan’s 19-year-old son Zach has gotten into trouble with the law for throwing a pig’s head into a Somali temple during their worship service. Jim and Bob must return to Shirley Falls to support their sister and nephew and give them any legal assistance possible. Their return home brings up all sorts of unpleasant memories, and old tensions between the siblings rise to the surface as they try to deal with Zach’s legal situation and their ideas about loyalty and family.
This is a hard book for me to review because I don’t feel like I have much to say about it. I didn’t love it, but I didn’t particularly dislike it.
For one thing, I found it hard to relate to any of the characters. Most of them are really depressing. Bob has lost so much and he uses booze to drown out his unhappiness and his feelings of guilt for the role he believes he played in his father’s death. Jim is a jerk who cuts down the people around him, always puts himself first, and doesn’t have time for his wife. Susan is bitter and angry after her husband (Zach’s father) left her many years before. Zach is sad and lonely with no friends and no forward momentum in his young life.
Each of the siblings are damaged by their father’s death, and the accident plays a huge part in the way they perceive each other. It was easy to feel sympathetic for them, and I felt very sad for each of them, but their bleakness made them hard to like or relate to. However, the darkness permeating much of The Burgess Boys begins to lift at the end, when some of the characters find hope in unexpected places.
One thing that would have improved The Burgess Boys for me would have been getting to read Zach’s perspective. The story is kicked into motion by Zach’s actions, but we never really learn why he committed the alleged hate crime or how he feels afterward, except that he’s scared. We hear other characters’ speculations about why he threw the pig’s head and the level of his ignorance of Somali beliefs and customs, and we hear statements from Zach that have gone through his lawyer, but I would have liked to hear Zach’s unfiltered thoughts. He is clearly a sad, scared lonely boy, but his “motives” as demonstrated in the book weren’t enough for me.
On the positive side, Elizabeth Strout did a good job portraying family ties in all of their complexity, describing the tensions between grudge and obligation, the need to flee vs. the desire to stay, and trying to support and forgive the people who have both loved and hurt you the most.
Although I didn’t love this book, I would recommend it to readers who enjoyed The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling. It’s dark, it involves small-town prejudices and scandals, and there are undertones of social commentary concerning the town’s Somali residents.
I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.