Day 542: The Burgess Boys

Cover for The Burgess BoysBest Book of the Week!
I had an unusual reaction to The Burgess Boys. Part of the way through, I was interested in how it would come out but at the same time wondered if I was liking it. By the end of the novel, though, I found it extremely satisfying.

The novel is about the clearly dysfunctional Burgess family, from a small town in Maine. When the three Burgess children were small, their father was killed in a freakish accident, run over by his own car rolling down the hilly driveway. All three kids were inside the car, and four-year-old Bob was behind the wheel when their mother came out to find their father dead. Mild-mannered Bob has carried this burden all his life, dealing with ridicule from his brother Jim and dislike from his twin sister Susan.

Jim and Bob long ago left Maine for New York City. But they are called back by a distraught Susan. Her son Zach has committed the inexplicable act of throwing a pig’s head into a mosque during Ramadan. Although Susan shows a good deal of ignorance about the local Somali population, the family cannot comprehend Zach’s action. He is a quiet misfit teenager, confused and pathetic, who has no friends. Unhappy especially since his father left for Sweden, he nevertheless does not seem to be angry or have any strong feelings at all except for being plainly terrified by the trouble he is in. He has a reason for his actions that is generally clueless, but it takes awhile for the family to discover it.

A former hotshot lawyer in Maine and famous for having won a high-profile case, Jim is the person Susan is relying on. Zach goes in to the police station to confess to the crime, and it seems as if the case will be handled quietly, but the civil liberties groups get involved and soon there is an uproar. When Jim’s grandstanding at a political event does more harm than good, Zach is charged with a hate crime.

As Jim takes charge while Bob tries to calm and comfort, the dynamics within the family emerge. At the same time, we learn a little about the terrified, disoriented Somali community. During the initial hearings, shopkeeper Abdikarim glimpses the true Zach and tries to help him.

As for the characters, I heartily disliked the person that everyone else admires. I think Strout intended that, and part of my satisfaction with the novel is about how that turns out.

Strout’s rich, detailed exposition is matched by her empathy for all her characters. Although I disliked some of them, they are complex and deeply human. This apparently simple story wisely examines the dynamics of guilt, family tensions, social isolation, and blind political correctness.

Life in the small Maine town seems gray and dismal at first, brightened only by the fall foliage and the hues of Somali garments. Jim and Bob have fled, and Susan and Zach are unhappy. There is little employment or hope for the residents. By the end of the novel, everyone has a little more hope.


10 thoughts on “Day 542: The Burgess Boys

  1. Naomi June 24, 2014 / 12:50 pm

    It sounds like there is a lot going on in this book. My mom recently recommended this one to me, saying that she liked it better than Olive Kitteridge. Have you read them both now?

    • whatmeread June 24, 2014 / 1:08 pm

      Yes, I have. I read Olive second. Olive has an interesting structure, short stories that come together to make a whole. This one is a more traditional novel, and it stuck with me more than Olive did.

  2. Alina (literaryvittles) June 24, 2014 / 2:28 pm

    “Part of the way through, I was interested in how it would come out but at the same time wondered if I was liking it.” → you just described my exact reaction to “And the Mountains Echoed”! I have a little over 100 pages to go, and I just can’t decide how I feel about it. It feels too vague, somehow.

    • whatmeread June 24, 2014 / 2:33 pm

      Sometimes putting the effort into it makes it completely worthwhile (sometimes not)! I haven’t started that one yet. For some reason, I thought it was in my pile but then found out it wasn’t, so just got it this weekend.

      • Alina (literaryvittles) June 24, 2014 / 2:34 pm

        Well, it is better than “A Thousand Splendid Suns,” I can tell you that!
        It’s just that the first chapter (a version of a traditional Afghan tale) was so good, and then nothing since has measured up to it.

      • whatmeread June 24, 2014 / 2:38 pm

        Really? I loved that one. What didn’t you like about it? Is your remark about the tale for this one or Thousand? I can’t really remember it in any great detail because I read it several years ago. It’s always interesting to me to find out why people don’t like books that I like.

      • Alina (literaryvittles) June 24, 2014 / 2:42 pm

        Sorry, my second comment was about Mountains Echoed – it has the excellent first chapter based on an Afghan tale.
        I just thought that Thousand was very extreme. I wish I could quote Emily J here, but I don’t think she wrote a review of the book, just gave it a low rating on Goodreads. Instead, I’ll quote another one-star review: ” I’ll grant the author has a talent for story telling and for creating characters, but for this one I can only assume that he made a list of all the horrible things that could happen to a female in Afghanistan and then outlined a novel to include every one of them.” It just seemed… really strange that he would want to write that book.

      • whatmeread June 24, 2014 / 2:51 pm

        Hmm, I didn’t have that reaction. I felt that the things that happened flowed fairly well from the story. I bet lots more things could happen to an Afghan women than we have ever considered. Maybe your reaction was a cumulative effect from having two women that bad things happened to. I think I read the book mostly as the story about a deep love between two women.

  3. Ngan R. June 24, 2014 / 6:23 pm

    I had the same reaction to this book as you did. I felt like I had to fight my way through the first half and took an active dislike to many of the characters. Did you ever want to punch Jim or scream at Bob, or was that just me? Despite all that, I finished the book and did like the ray of hope you mentioned.

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