Saturday, June 15, 2013

Book rec: The Burgess Boys

I  was quite unexpectedly swept up by Elizabeth Strout's The Burgess Boys, zipping through it. I very much liked her previous novel, Olive Kittredge, but like it, the new novel's title is pretty uninspiring and makes it sound a bit oldey timey, which it isn't. It's also misleading as there is a "girl"—a sister—as well, but her detachment from her brothers is a core plot point.

The boys of the title are Bob and Jim Burgess, both Brooklyn residents—respectively a legal aid lawyer who lives relatively modestly, and a high-profile criminal defense lawyer with a more lavish lifestyle. Their sister Susan (Bob's twin) lives in the family's hometown in Maine and is the single mother of a teen, Zach. The father of the three Burgess siblings was killed in a freak accident; he left the young kids in the car and was then run over by it. The blame, accused and true, is the elusive, resurfacing and many tentacled monster throughout the book. 

In the intervening decades, Jim had always played the role of the father figure, handling family crises, or lending a shoulder or advice to his siblings, who were considered sort of losers. Jim was the only one to foster a conventionally respectable way of life, sustaining a marriage and raising kids; the other two are divorced and single. Zach tosses a pig's head into the door of the local mosque, frequented by the many Somalis who settled in town. The act is interpreted as a hate crime, but he apparently did it to impress his father, who moved to Sweden with a new girlfriend. The pig's head becomes fodder for the tabloids and local grandstanding politicians, and Uncle Jim takes it upon himself to appear at a tolerance rally and make a typically golden-tongued speech to try to sway public perception of the family and help his nephew avoid being charged. It backfires, showing up the governor who spoke directly after Jim, who didn't even stay for the governor's speech. Hate crime charges are filed, kicked up to the federal level. 

The plotline involving xenophobia and hate crimes cruises along the surface, but the public and private perceptions of the Burgess siblings become the spine of the story. Turns out a lie about Bob has been perpetuated their entire lives, dictating their relationships with one another and their families. When that lie is revealed, the equation shifts, and in a sense, dues are paid as far as they can be. It also comments on perceived success, the status quo, and how happiness comes in various forms. Strout's writing flows elegantly, and it's punctuated with funny dialogue and amusing observations, in the end deflating the myth of conventional success. Just don't let the title fool you.

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