The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
*** Warning *** Spoiler alert. Two paragraphs below are marked as being possible spoilers
Elizabeth Strout writes, not with a pen, but with a
scalpel. I finished this book on a lovely summer Sunday; I could have been out
walking, hiking, picnicking, talking with friends, but nothing was going to keep
me from reading the last quarter of this book on this day.
This novel is about relationships, primarily sibling and married couple
relationships. The Burgess boys, Bob and Jim, grew up with their sister Susan in
a small town in Maine. We discover in short order that when he was 4 years old
Bob was responsible for killing their father in an accident. And years later he
still accepts responsiblity “Jimmy did his taunting of Bob when their mother was
not there, and while Bob might fight back, in his heart he accepted his
brother’s scorn. Standing in Roosevelt Park watching his brother speak with
eloquence, Bob still accepted it. He knew what he had done.” (p 151)
Bob and Jim have moved to New York as adults and work hard at staying away from
Maine. They are forced back to Maine when Susan’s son, Zach, performs a stupid
act affecting the immigrant Somali population that has serious consequences.
Jim’s wife, Helen, “saw how the incident was an irritant rubbing already against
the fine fabric of her family, and she felt right now the small pricks of
anxiety that precede insomnia” (p 26).
The plot of Zach’s troubles is merely a springboard to investigate these lives.
Strout does a marvelous, outstanding, find-me-another-superlative-and-I’ll-use-
it, job of exploring the inner lives of Susan, Bob, Helen, Pam (Bob’s ex-wife)
and others to show us their foibles, their worries and insecurities, their hopes
and fears. At the beginning of the coming together of the siblings to deal with
the problem she writes “it saddened him [Bob], but it seemed far away. But he
knew very soon it would not feel far away; the murkiness of Susan and Zachary
and Shirley Falls would seep into his apartment the way the emptiness [in the
vacant apartment] below waited to remInd him that his neighbors were no more,
that nothing lasts forever, there is nothing to be counted on.” (p 90).
She takes on two of life’s big questions: does our past really matter now, in
the present, since our lives here are facts and can’t be changed. Second, how do
really understand other people.
— Possible spoilers here —
I’ll hold back on the first point – does our past really matter. I am tempted to
go all English-major on the subject and show how the answer evolves depending on
the events and the people whose lives are affected. One character says “It’s the
past. It’s not getting redone. … We’ve all arrived at this point, so you know,
we go on.” (p 236) But that would spoil the book and you need to read it for
Strout is marvelous in elucidating the second theme: we only know so much about
others; we don’t live in their internal world. But at times we get glimpses of
the motivations of others: “Pam began to feel sorry for Susan, This was
surprising to Pam, perhaps her first understanding of the prismatic quality of
viewing people. She felt she had been seeing only the front of Susan and had
missed entirely the large white light of motherly disapproval that shone behind
her.” (p 104).
— End of possible spoilers —
On the third theme let me simply quote Pam after an evening where she has gone
from feeling in control to feeling buffeted by events “Nothing is what you
imagine. Her mind hovered above this simple and alarming though. The variables
were too great, the particularities too distincT, life a flood of translations
from the shadow-edged yearnings of the heart to the immutable aspects of the
physical world – this violet duvet and her slightly snoring husband.” (p246).
She uses a superb method of making this theme work. While we take part in the
inner lives of the other major characters, we never hear what is going on in
Jim’s life. We simply see he is hard through his interaction with others. Helen
asks him “Why are you being rude?”(p 238) and Bob explaining Jim to Zach “The
truth about your Uncle Jim is that no one really knows if he’s an asshole or
note, but he acts like one a lot of the time, to everyone, not just you.”(p
Strout moves the story forward through dialog and interior monologue; we don’t
get bogged down with a omnipotent narrator who tells us the story. Instead,
Elizabeth Strout shows us the story.
With this one book she has become one of my top 5 authors alongside Larry
McMurtry (earlier work), Richard Russo and Wallace Stegner. I don’t include P.G.
Wodehouse in this comparison because his writing is so different. I most compare
Strout to Richard Russo who is so adept at breaking down people’s lives and
thoughts. I’m changing my reading list to read the rest of her catalog.
I can’t say it enough: read this book.