Thursday, May 9, 2013

Review of "The Burgess Boys" [35]

The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout
Random House, ISBN 978-1400067688
March 26, 2013, 336 pages

Bob Burgess has little interest in returning home to his small Maine town from NYC, where he now works as a legal aid lawyer. Neither he nor his brother, who he idolizes, could get out of there fast enough when they were younger. But his sister, who still lives in their hometown, has called that her son is in trouble and needs some help, so Bob goes. She would really have preferred that her much more successful brother Jim, also a lawyer, would have come, but he is too 'busy', about to set off on a vacation, so she will have to make do with second best.
Bob, it seems, is always second best.

Her son Zack has committed a nasty prank, throwing a bloody pig's head into a mosque attended by the town's immigrant Somalis. And now, instead of a common misdemeanor, it is being considered a hate crime and he could be in very serious trouble. But when these three come together, all still haunted by some degree by their father's death in a tragic, horrible accident when they were just young children, things are not going to be a bed of roses.

Although I have not yet read it, I heard wonderful things about the author's previous book, Olive Kitteridge, so when I got a chance to read this one, I happily grabbed it.
I am sorry to say, that while I did not hate this book, I certainly did not love it.

The plot, what there was of it, just sort of meandered pointlessly along for me.
But the real problem, the deal breaker, was the characters, not a good thing in what is certainly a character driven novel.
On the one hand, I did not really feel like I was given enough to really know them, to really get a handle on them, but on the other hand, what I did get to know, I didn't like. It is an issue that comes up from time to time when reading a book, but I will ask it is possible to like a book when you do not like any of people in it, do not feel any empathy for them, ultimately do not care much what happens to them? Maybe, but not for me.

The siblings, the Burgess boys and their sister....well, one is worse than the other. Successful, high flying attorney Jim is a nasty piece of work, just so full of himself and someone who treats his younger brother like dirt. Which is particularly reprehensible when we find out, near the end of the book, a particular fact about their history when they were children. The sister Susan, hanging around in this town, Shirley Falls, Maine, which she hates, is annoying and angry. We have Bob, maybe the most likable of the group but he is just so pitiful, such a punching bag, that I want to yell at him to stand up for himself.
And finally, we have Susan's son Zach, the teenager who committed the very stupid act that got this all started, and caused his uncles to come and help him. Well, we see little of him and never get any real idea of way he did what he did, which seems like an important issue to me. In fact, everything we are told about him makes it seem unlikely that he would do such a thing. So way did he? We are just suppose to accept it I guess.

The book touches upon a number of topics...the complexities of rural, small town life, issues of immigrants assimilating in a new and often hostile community, tension between siblings, hate crimes, marriage and divorce...perhaps too many topics, because I finished the book not feeling I had a better handle on any of them.
Maybe I am just not up for another rambling, rather depressing story of yet another dysfunctional family.

My thanks to Amazon Vine and the publisher for providing a review copy.


  1. Ah, so good to hear I can avoid this one! I am totally not interested in yet another rambling depressing story of yet another dysfunctional family. I mean, it's almost Thanksgiving - I'll have my OWN story! ha ha

  2. Well I was one of the few people who didn't love Olive. She was a little too fussy for me. Which is why I didn't run out and grab this one. If I didn't love her Magnum Opus, what chance did I have with this one? We do all appreciate you reading it for us though.

    1. ok, I am not running out to get Olive now either.

  3. A meandering plot doesn't sound very appealing to me.

  4. Oh, this is disappointing! (I mean the book, not your review.) I did like Olive and Amy & Isabelle, although they were both a little off-kilter. I thought perhaps I had found an author who could satisfy. Perhaps not. . .

  5. I have started and stopped this book a few times. I need to finish it just so I can get it out of my head. Glad to know I am not the only one struggling with it.

    1. I had the same experience..and it is not a good sign.

  6. One to take off the wish list. Thanks


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