Book Review: The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout
by Elizabeth Strout
Random House, 2013
This was a book club pick that I stuck with because it was our book club book, otherwise I might have bailed early on. The muted, unhappy characters and the difficult subject matter did not entice me to keep reading.
I cannot discredit the writing quality of a Pulitzer Prize winner, but couldn’t at least one character have been happy and fulfilled? Well, okay. Maybe the Unitarian minister, Margaret Estaver, experienced some joy in her life, but she was not a main character, so she couldn’t cut through the gloom enough to uplift me.
Elizabeth Strout’s story begins with a female childhood friend of the Burgess family reminiscing with her mother about the life events of the Burgesses. This daughter, grown and living in New York with a husband her mother doesn’t like, talks over the phone with the mother who still lives in Maine. At the end of one of their conversations, the daughter announces that she’s going to write the story of the Burgess kids, so we know that the story that follows is told from her perspective and with her biases. Interestingly, Strout doesn’t circle back to this woman and her mother at the end of the book, and that felt like a dropped thread. I would have enjoyed (a) being reminded of her and (b) getting a wrap-up perspective on it all.
The Burgess family has three children: Jim, Bob and Susan. Jim becomes a famous trial lawyer after winning a high-profile case similar to that of O.J. Simpson. Bob leads a troubled life haunted by a childhood trauma for which he feels responsible. Susan raises her teenaged son, Zach, alone after her husband divorces her and flees to Sweden. Zach, a depressed teenager who lives in a black bedroom, throws a frozen pig’s head into a mosque, and that sets off the turbulent series of events that make up this novel.
We must read the book with the biases of the narrator in mind. We know she draws her version of events from neighbourhood gossip and second-hand news, so everything is suspect to begin with. We guess that her portrayal of Helen, the oldest Burgess boy’s wife, as a spoiled and self-absorbed could arise from Helen’s curt dismissal of her in a public place. The tensions between the New York crowd and Maine residents is a recurring theme, reflecting the narrator’s own inner battle to accommodate her New York life and her Maine roots. The name of the book is The Burgess Boys not the Burgess Kids, which says a lot about the narrator’s feelings about Susan.
Strout covers substantial psychological ground in this novel. Strout digs into sibling relationships, mother/daughter tensions, the danger of secrets, the poisonous effects of guilt, and the intricacies of marriage. She sympathetically creates a fair representation of the struggles of Somali immigrants. The other likeable character (although not happy) is Abdikarim Ahmed, a Somali man haunted by the memory of the attending police officers laughing at the sight of the bloody pig’s head in the mosque.
This book club pick brought a split-decision from our group. We lauded the literary writing and the importance of the topic, but we struggled with the dropped threads and the depressing overtone.