Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Burgess Boys

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of The Burgess Boys (Random House, 2013).

There is so much travel between Brooklyn and Maine in this novel, and the characters are so warm and appealing, that I found myself wanting to check in with Jim Burgess, the dashing and reckless big brother of the family, to make sure he got home safely. You know that you've read a special book when you're worried about the characters doing something as dangerous as, you know, going home.

Elizabeth Strout, who won the Pulitzer in 2009 for a short story collection, wrote this novel that seems to be set in the same universe as the world of that book, Olive Kitteridge. There are clues in the prologue, including a blink-and-you'll-miss-it confirmation of what you'll hope will become of the town's disorganized minister, that it's the same people, I think.

This time, our barely-glimpsed narrator is telling the story of the disintegrating, unfortunate Burgess family. Jim is a hotshot attorney hitting the wall of a midlife crisis, younger brother Bob is a kind legal aid attorney who puts up with Jim's awfulness way more than he should, and Bob's twin sister Susan stayed home in a small Maine community, Shirley Falls, to raise a lonely teenage son by herself. The family is upended when the son plays a stupid prank against some of the town's Muslim immigrants, several dozen refugees from Somalia. The legal stakes escalate as the government wants the new population to feel safe, and it looks like the poor, dumb kid is going to be made an example of...

I did have some initial confusion, since there are quite a few characters introduced in a short period, but that passed. I loved that sense that something is not quite right with Jim and Helen's marriage but not being able to pinpoint it. I really liked bighearted Bob - I pictured Beau Bridges in the role - who just struck me as an incredibly decent person trying to rein in way too much of the sadness, the worry, and the slow grind of the legal system. It's a book where the plot is nowhere as important as the character development, and these characters develop in ways you will never expect. Recommended.

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