Book Review: The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout

Posted April 18, 2013 by LeahAdmin in Reviews / 8 Comments

Book Review: The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout
The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout
Published by Random House on Mar. 2013
Pages: 320
Genres: Fiction
Source: Publisher

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.

  • therelentlessreader

    I had requested this from my library but after seeing more than a few “meh” reviews of it I canceled my request. I’m thinking this isn’t worth the buzz. Thanks for an honest review 🙂

  • I felt very lukewarm about The Burgess Boys, too. I thought it was well written, but didn’t care about any of the characters and felt like there was a whole lot of self pity going on.

    • Exactly my feelings! Lukewarm is a great word to describe it.

  • I’m sorry that you don’t love it! Her first book, Olive Kitteridge, was rather depressing, too, but much easier to identify with the characters. I’ve been ambivalent about this book, too.

    • Hmm, I had been kind of interested in reading Olive Kitteridge, but if it’s depressing, too, I’ll give it a miss. I don’t need light and fluffy, but downers aren’t really my thing either.

      I’m kind of surprised by the number of “meh” responses I’ve seen to this book; on Goodreads, it seems like most people loved it. Must be due to demographic differences?

      • Maybe so? As for Olive Kitteridge, it’s very somber so maybe not what you’re looking for 😉

  • It’s always good to read an honest review 🙂 Judging by the fact that we have quite similar tastes in books, I would trust your judgement and NOT consider reading this one.

    • I don’t think you’ll be missing much by skipping this one.