Monday, May 27, 2013

From the House of the Burgesses

Elizabeth Strout's new novel The Burgess Boys had at least three strong points in its favor as I started selecting my next summer read:  First, I had read Olive Kitteridge (before it won the Pulitzer Prize) and loved it--loved Olive, in fact. Second, my mother was a Burgess. I know. That's not the best reason in the world to pick a book. Third, I came across a signed copy at Ann Patchett's Parnassus Books in Nashville.  Then I found out my sister Amy was reading it, too, so I was ready to head right into it, knowing I'd have someone who'd discuss it with me. 

Strout has a knack for writing about flawed characters with far-from-perfect families in such a way that readers can't help but care for them. In this novel, the Burgess boys are two grown brothers living in New York City, one more successful--at least on the surface--personally and professionally, who learn that their sister's teenage son Zach, living in their small Maine hometown Shirley Falls, has thrown a pig head through the door of the local Muslim temple.  Readers learn that the boy is a socially awkward boy who acted less in malice that for attention.  The publicity given the case nationwide--particularly because of the influx of Somali refugees to the small town--is pressuring local, state, and even federal officials to consider pressing charges for a hate crime.

Running alongside the boy's plight, however, the narrative observes the complicated family dynamics among the three siblings and their families. Jim, the more successful lawyer, has always seemed the more charasmatic of the three. Bob's marriage has failed, and he lives in an apartment his brother ridicules.  Strout reveals that Bob has had to live with responsibility for an accident that killed their father when he was very young.  His mother, rather than blaming him, had seemed to favor him.  The tensions come to a head as the two brothers deal with their nephew and sister's legal plight and their own relationship. 

If Tolstoy is right about happy and unhappy families, it may also be true that as readers we are drawn to other families' problems, enjoying our status as observer as we watch them face trouble and conflict, then fight, think, or talk their way  out of it.

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