Book Review: The Burgess Boys

burgess3Elizabeth Strout likes populating her novels with difficult characters. A talent that was evident in her previous novels; in particular, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Olive Kitteridge.

In The Burgess Boys, we meet three conflicted siblings.

First-born Jim is the classic over-achiever and worthy of his birth order. From class president and football star to celebrity lawyer, Jim has that uncanny ability to always say and do the right thing. But his eyes never smile and many of his comments, especially those directed toward his younger brother Bob, border on bullying.

Laid back and liberally minded Bob accepts the casually tossed “slob-dog,” “knucklehead” and other put-downs from Jim. And he knows that his twin sister Susan doesn’t think too highly of him either. He stoically carries the burden of having accidentally killed his father when he was four years old.

While her brothers were able to escape small town Maine and move to New York, Susan is still stuck in Shirley Falls. The bitter, divorced optometrist is raising an emotionally fragile Zachary on her own.

When Zachary throws a frozen pig’s head through the door of a local Somali mosque during Ramadan, racial tensions in the small town escalate and force the return of the Burgess Brothers to Maine.

Their efforts, however, leave Zachary worse off and as the brothers shuttle between New York and Shirley Falls their own lives start to unravel. An unexpected disclosure from Jim forces Bob to question that “crust of doubt” he has carried for most of his life. Poor judgment on Jim’s part causes his well-orchestrated life to spiral dangerously out of control.

A natural storyteller with an excellent eye for detail, Elizabeth Strout has created a cast of characters who will linger in our collective memories.


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