Free Range Reading

The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout

Published on Thursday, May 8, 2014

The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout

When Heads Roll It's Not a Good Thing

This contemporary novel begins with the back story of the Burgess family from a down-on-its-luck former mill town in Maine.  The eldest son, Jim, and one of the younger twins, Bob have made lives for themselves in New York City.  While Bob’s bitter, unlovable twin, Susan stayed behind in Shirley Falls.  The three live very different lives, are very different types of people, and have limited contact with one another until a bizarre incident calls them together in Shirley Falls. 

In the back story, the Burgess family suffered a tragic accident 50 years before, that mark them all.  The accident was blamed on 4-year old Bob, who endured the ridicule and taunting of his siblings and school children thereafter.  Nevertheless, kind-hearted Bob was his mother’s favorite and makes an unimpressive life for himself in New York.  Jim, the ambitious overachiever is admired, goes to Harvard, marries a wealthy woman, has kids, the nice home, prestigious job, and seems to have it all.  Susan always the main target of her mother’s criticism and has become a bitter, resentful adult whose husband left her to raise their odd and lonely son, Zach, who has now brought the reluctant family back together in Shirley Falls after pulling a stupid prank which is now being investigated as a hate crime. 

Thrown together, the family tensions surface and in the course of the tale, transform each of the characters in very different ways.  

It is the characters that make this novel so compelling.  Each is well-defined, if not consistently likeable, certainly engaging.  The author is so good at providing details that elevate the ordinary, she makes this tale of fiction feel like something that might well appear in the news.  

Lots to talk about if you’re in a book discussion group.

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