Ian Colford’s Reviews >  The Burgess Boys

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The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout

Read in September 2016

4 of 5 stars

Elizabeth Strout follows up her Pulitzer Prize win with a novel about a family in crisis. Brothers Jim and Bob Burgess grew up in tiny Shirley Falls, Maine. Both became lawyers and fled small-town life for New York. Sister Susan remained in Shirley Falls, got married, had a son, and divorced. When all three were very young their father was killed, run down by the family car when four-year-old Bob unwittingly released the hand brake, and the guilt he has lived with for his entire life has rendered him hopelessly indecisive and sapped his self-esteem. The contrast with Jim--a hot-shot lawyer still, many years later, riding a wave of national celebrity for a high-profile case he won early in his career as a defense attorney--could not be more stark. Jim exudes confidence, and when Susan’s son Zack commits a pointless act of vandalism against the Somali community in Shirley Falls and is charged with a hate crime, it is Jim that Susan calls to fix the problem. The action proceeds at a measured pace, the story told from multiple perspectives. The tension derives from Jim and Bob being compelled to return to Shirley Falls for the first time in years, and having to deal with the ghosts of a painful past and with each other. It is a typical brotherly relationship: contentious and yet loyal and supportive. When truths emerge, as they always do, all three siblings find that their relationship has changed forever. Strout is masterful when it comes to digging into her characters’ motives and revealing them as deeply flawed individuals whose triumphs we cheer and whose failures we mourn. She writes crisp and utterly convincing dialogue. It might not be Olive Kittridge, but The Burgess Boys further solidifies her reputation as one of the best novelists at work today.