Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Elizabeth Strout is known for the remarkable empathy she shows her characters and for her tough yet truthful depiction of intimate relationships. Her moving new novel, The Burgess Boys, examines how patterns established in childhood can impact the choices we make as adults. When the three Burgesses, who lost their father in a freak accident, are called together over a crisis decades later, they are forced to forge a new set of family dynamics.
Jim and Bob, the Burgess brothers, may have only moved from Maine to New York, but emotionally, they are far away from the little town of Shirley Falls where they grew up. Jim is a highly visible corporate lawyer, whose cases have brought him fame and some notoriety. His life with his wife Helen in a Park Slope brownstone seems just about perfect, even as they adjust to an empty nest. Younger brother Bob prefers a quieter life as a Legal Aid attorney and idolizes Jim, though he finds some of his career choices distasteful. Neither man maintains anything but the most casual connection with their hometown, and when Bob’s resentful twin, Susan, calls from Maine after her son Zach is charged with a hate crime, their lives are turned upside down. Zach, an isolated and lonely teenager, was caught throwing a pig’s head into the local mosque, and the brothers arrive back in Shirley Falls to handle his case. When the siblings are together once again, long-buried secrets about their father’s accidental death are uncovered and family loyalties and ties are tested.
This is familiar territory for Strout, whose previous books (Amy and Isabelle, Olive Kitteridge) were also set in Maine and featured families strained to their breaking point. Strout casts a wider net in The Burgess Boys, examining how the recent influx of Somalis to Shirley Falls has changed the fabric of the New England town. Her characters navigate the rich urban landscapes of Manhattan and gentrified Park Slope, which stand in stark contrast to the insularity of Shirley Falls. Strout based part of the story on an actual case, and her expertise as a lawyer offers much fruitful detail on the building of a legal case against Zach.
The Burgess Boys is an ambitious novel that weaves an intricate family drama shot through with the threads of race and class, though it occasionally suffers from a lack of focus—Zach’s story is sometimes overshadowed by the squabbling between the siblings and their spouses as they scramble to uncover the unsolvable mystery of their childhood. Nevertheless, Strout excels in constructing an intricate but believable web of family drama, and her ear for how siblings, husbands and wives really communicate makes for a deeply powerful story.