Sunday, June 9, 2013

"The Burgess Boys," by Elizabeth Strout

I (along with many other readers, clearly, as testified to by its long-running bestseller status) loved Elizabeth Strout’s collection of interconnected short stories, “Olive Kitteridge,” so I was primed to love her new novel, “The Burgess Boys” (Random House, 2013). I did in fact enjoy it, but I must say that at times it was a bit of a struggle, and at times it was depressing. This novel tells of the Burgess family, three adult siblings who have a closely connected and yet vexed relationship with each other. The two “boys” of the title are lawyers Jim and Bob; the third sibling is their sister Susan; other characters are Jim’s wife Helen and Susan’s troubled son Zach. Susan still lives in Maine, where the siblings grew up; Jim and Bob have moved to New York. Jim is the successful one of the family, a prominent lawyer who gained fame after he defended an O.J. Simpson-type character and was on television every night for a while. Now the family is challenged and brought together uneasily when the somewhat sad and immature Zach commits what some consider a hate crime, but what it seems clear he didn’t really do with any malice. This precipitating event brings out all the family history, all the family dynamics, and eventually uncovers an old family secret in the process. This book has a lot going on: It is about family, about Maine, about religious prejudice, about America's uneasy absorbing of new immigrants, about the law, about marriage, about parenting, about family secrets and their consequences, and more. It is sometimes sad and difficult to read, and other times uplifting. Most of all, as we read it, we are in the thick of the human condition.

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