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321 of 350 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Does Anyone Have Bob Burgess' Phone Number....
I just finished Elizabeth Strout's new novel "The Burgess Boys" and feel more like my plane has just landed at LAX from Maine and I am disoriented as I make my way to claim my baggage because my head and my heart are still back in Shirley Falls with the Burgess family.

I want to contact someone in the family and check on everyone...that is how attached I became...
Published 23 months ago by Spindrift

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325 of 380 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars "Nobody ever knows anyone."
At the risk of being very unpopular among all my fellow reviewers who adore Elizabeth Strout and love her new novel, THE BURGESS BOYS, I'm afraid I am going to have to take the middle road in my evaluation of it.

Totally predictable and, for this reviewer anyway, utterly boring, it's difficult for me to say to whom this novel would appeal most. My best guess is...
Published 23 months ago by Evelyn A. Getchell


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321 of 350 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Does Anyone Have Bob Burgess' Phone Number...., January 31, 2013
This review is from: The Burgess Boys: A Novel (Hardcover)
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I just finished Elizabeth Strout's new novel "The Burgess Boys" and feel more like my plane has just landed at LAX from Maine and I am disoriented as I make my way to claim my baggage because my head and my heart are still back in Shirley Falls with the Burgess family.

I want to contact someone in the family and check on everyone...that is how attached I became to "The Burgess Boys" and the rest of the clan as I read this wonderful book. It absolutely takes my breath away, how the phenomenal Strout can create a character like Olive Kitteridge (who owned my heart) and then produce her opposite on earth (Jim Burgess) so perfectly. There are alot of characters in "The Burgess Boys". In another author's hands, it could have been too many. But each of these compelling people are drawn so succinctly, with so much dimension and stunning depth, that they will literally stay with me forever. They are a family that has suffered together, not liked each other very much sometimes, but have a loving grasp on each other that will never be released. Not anyone here is completely likable...or completely not so. They all are attempting to do the best that they can. Aren't we all?

This is also the story of immigrants...and how painfully difficult their epic struggle is. How there are some elements so unique to the saga of immigrating to a new country, that it is not possible for the residents of the area receiving them to fully understand.

But most of all this is the story of an ordinary family. How childhood trauma touches all of us in different ways, how ugly and disparaging comments made to a loved one carelessly can impact their whole life. It just screams at the reader...love the ones you love well, and never wander too far away from home...because your heart never really leaves anyway.

Don't miss "The Burgess Boys". I have a feeling that it will become just as important of a book as it's predecessor, "Olive Kitteridge".
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142 of 159 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Some novels are a joy to read...., February 16, 2013
This review is from: The Burgess Boys: A Novel (Hardcover)
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In some ways I dreaded opening Elizabeth Strout's 'The Burgess Boys.' I'd admired the Pulitzer Prize winning 'Olive Kitteridge' and feared that Strout's next novel could never live up to my expectations. In retrospect I see that I should spend more time worrying about world peace and my vanishing waist line and let Strout take care of herself.

Some authors are like trapeze artists - they make the impossible look easy. Strout is such an author. My fears for her newest novel failed to take into consideration her beautiful prose. She is a gifted storyteller. And add that her insight into the human heart, and we have the makings of a great novel.

Simply put, 'The Burgess Boys' is the story of three siblings, two brothers and a sister, who live with the guilt of their young father's death. Leaving the three in the running car, he had stepped out for a moment; one of the children sat behind the wheel, and the car rolled forward, killing their father.

'The Burgess Boys' is, as the title suggests, a novel of family relationships. And the effect of guilt and redemption. Who is truly responsible for the accident? Can the two alienated Burgess brothers pull together to help their sister when her own son is accused of a hate crime? What makes us the people that we are? How do we earn redemption?

It is a novel of character rather than plot, of introspection rather than action.

But it's also a novel whose beautiful prose is to be savoured and enjoyed.
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325 of 380 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars "Nobody ever knows anyone.", February 2, 2013
This review is from: The Burgess Boys: A Novel (Hardcover)
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At the risk of being very unpopular among all my fellow reviewers who adore Elizabeth Strout and love her new novel, THE BURGESS BOYS, I'm afraid I am going to have to take the middle road in my evaluation of it.

Totally predictable and, for this reviewer anyway, utterly boring, it's difficult for me to say to whom this novel would appeal most. My best guess is those readers who enjoy latent, passive prose.

An apt adjective for Strout's style in THE BURGESS BOYS is subdued. She has a knack for ordinary realism and capturing her characters' quirky and forbearing New England relationships but there is always an underlying hopelessness beneath the surface which disheartened me.

Although Strout's prose is quite lovely, the story is a spirit-sapping slog through sodden, dysfunctional family melodrama that simply works too hard to say something profound. There is a statement proclaimed at one point, that "Everyone's happy. Freedom from white guilt makes everyone happy" but the irony is no one is ever really happy. The prevailing mood of depression and the overriding sense of alienation and loneliness only kept me at arm's length from the heart and soul of the primary characters: the Burgess siblings - Jimmy, Bobby and Susan, their spouses and ex-spouses, and Susan's troubled son, Zach.

Unfortunately for this reader, Strout's characterizations could not pull me into the world she attempted to create for them. Rather than being multi-dimensional characters of depth they are sadly stuck in stereotypes.

Strout is subtle in showing how empty and pointless the lives of her characters are but their desolation and abject loneliness are never lifted. Their story just plods heavily, anticlimactically along. I kept hoping for some kind of dramatic crescendo but it simply never happens. Maybe that is the point - that life just plods along, and then there is acceptance, and then that is all there is.

One important character whom I wished was given a bit more exposure in the novel is the Somali elder of the Shirley Falls Somali community, Abdikarim. Of all the characters in the novel it is he who has the most depth, he with the humanity that we can most relate to, he who has an inner world, he who strives to achieve the higher realm in life. Perhaps therein is another point Strout wanted to make. If so, I hope it does not go unnoticed by other readers.

The structure of the novel is rather interesting. From the Prologue we discover that the narrator is a woman from the same New England town as the Burgess family - Shirley Falls, Maine. She decides to tell the story of the Burgess kids even though "People will say it's not nice to write about people I know" to which her mother replies "Well, you don't know them," "Nobody ever knows anyone." The rest of the book is divided into Books One, Two, Three, and Four, for whatever reason was not clear to me but really doesn't matter anyway. THE BURGESS BOYS is like a novel within a novel.

The plot itself is rather inert, predictable and cursory. A thoughtless prank is committed by Susan's emotionally disturbed son Zach against the immigrant Somali community of Shirley Falls in their mosque during the Muslim holy day of Ramadan. Uncles Jimmy and Bobby, both attorneys, are then called home to Shirley Falls from Brooklyn, NY where they now reside in order to help Zach get out of the serious trouble he has gotten himself into, trouble which has escalated from a misdemeanor to a hate crime against the Muslim Somalis.

As I trudged along in my reading of THE BURGESS BOYS I kept asking myself what would make this novel work better for me? While the quality of Strout's writing is without a doubt admirable, there simply wasn't enough literary spark or Pulitzer pizzazz in this novel to really excite me. I think what I really needed, what I was really expecting and what I was really hoping for was for Elizabeth Strout to surprise me, if even just once, with a stunning denouement. But alas...
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27 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating timely novel, February 2, 2013
This review is from: The Burgess Boys: A Novel (Hardcover)
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I ripped through this book in two days. It's just excellent. The small backwoods town of Shirley Falls, Maine, from which the Burgess family hails, is dying on the vine like many towns in New England since the mills up and left. Then there is an influx of newcomers, people from war-torn Somalia, via refugee camps in Kenya. They are Muslims, wear traditional dress, and many don't speak English. Of course there is jarring culture shock for both the old residents and the newcomers, and the communication problem makes it virtually impossible to understand the values and beliefs of the opposite group. There is naturally some hostility and resentment on both sides.

The Burgess boys, Jim and Bob, are both lawyers in New York. Their sister Susan, a divorcee with a teenage son, still lives in Shirley Falls. Her son does something stupid that blows up into a national and then an international incident. He knows nothing about Islam or about what the Somalis in the town went through in their earlier lives. Within days, everyone (politicians, police, liberals, conservatives, clergy, even a white supremacist group from Montana) converges on the town for a huge rally. Susan calls in her brothers for help.

The story is terrific, but so are the characters. Jim is Perry Mason, Johnnie Cochran, F. Lee Bailey, etc. rolled into one. He almost was picked for OJ Simpson's Dream Team, but he did get an acquittal in another high profile case involving a celebrity singer. Jim is such a jerk I wouldn't have lunch with him, but I would want him on my side in litigation. Bob is a troubled Legal Aid attorney who no longer does courtroom work. Jim is condescening to everyone, but he really puts his brother down all the time, calling him moron, retard, slobdog, idiot, mental case. He's not much better to his wife, Helen, or Bob's ex-wife, Pamela, both of whom are smart, sensitive, good people. Bob is the most sensitive of the Burgess kids, and I get the impression Jim and Susan perceive this as weakness. The author also explores the situation from the view of an older man who left Mogadishu later than he should have, and now lives in Shirley Falls with cousins. It's important since the reader needs to know why the Somalian population is seeing things as they do. Probably many of the original residents of the town are associating all Muslims with 9/11 and other terrorist acts. It's a really difficult situation and I think the author handles it as well as anyone could.

This could be one of the best books of the year.
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19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Can we ever escape the familiar roles we fall into with family members?, March 30, 2013
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This review is from: The Burgess Boys: A Novel (Hardcover)
How can we keep from falling into the same old patterns and traps of our childhood? Can we ever break free of the pull of family dynamics? These questions are at the crux of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Elizabeth Strout's new novel, The Burgess Boys.

Jim, Bob, and Susan Burgess were raised by their mother in the small town of Shirley Falls, Maine, following the death of their father in a freak accident when they were young. Jim was always the strong one, the hero; Bob, the sensitive one, always seemed to get the most love from their mother, while his twin sister, Susan, bore the brunt of her mother's rages and insecurities. As soon as they were able, Jim and Bob fled Shirley Falls for New York--Jim became a corporate lawyer after garnering some notoriety defending a celebrity client, while Bob settled for a career as a Legal Aid attorney. Susan stayed in Shirley Falls, married, divorced, and raised a son on her own, and was never able to overcome the self-esteem issues she suffered because of her mother. All their lives, Jim has belittled Bob's every move--the collapse of his marriage and subsequent romantic relationships, his work for Legal Aid, even his apartment. And while everyone has told Bob to stand up for himself, he idolizes Bob, so he has allowed himself to be treated this way.

One day, Susan calls Jim for help. Her lonely teenage son, Zach, apparently rolled a bloody pig's head into a Somali mosque during Ramadan. He doesn't know why he did it, except that he intended it as a joke, because he didn't even know what Ramadan was. Zach's actions have ignited a firestorm in Shirley Falls, where an influx of Somali immigrants had already been causing strain among the long-time residents. Jim and Bob come home to try and assuage Susan and Zach's fears, and Jim tries to smooth things over with the political and legal community. And as Jim's meddling actually makes things worse than better, and the three siblings find themselves reliving old habits and old hurts, all of the anxieties and pain are magnified, causing ripples in their relationships with each other, as well as Jim's relationship with his wife, Helen.

Elizabeth Strout is a very talented writer, and she has created a compelling story of family dynamics and what it feels like to be an outsider, both in reality and within your own family. While the premise of her story is appealing, her characters are not, at least through nearly the entire book. I really struggled with why I cared what happened to these people when I didn't have any sympathy for passive Susan, guilt-ridden and sad-sack Bob, or boorishly aggressive and angry Jim. Even the gradual (or in some cases, sudden) transformations they make didn't completely win me over, although I understood the catalysts for them occurring.

Can you enjoy a book when you have no empathy for the main characters? That answer differs for me from book to book; in the case of The Burgess Boys, I'd say it was a well-written book I didn't enjoy as much as I had hoped.
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31 of 35 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Crate and Barrel, Wonder bread and Starbucks swirled into one..., April 22, 2013
By 
Alyssa Donati "phantjag" (New York, N.Y. United States) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Burgess Boys: A Novel (Hardcover)
I love Elizabeth Strout. I loved Amy and Isabelle and Olive Kitteridge because of Strout's ability to create lives so real they almost defy their fictional existence. They rise up off the paper, they look you in the eye as acutely as a Vermeer and you sit in horror and fascination as they cross out the world. Scrub away your friends and neighbors. Turn off the traffic and blot out the sun. Her characters are maddeningly durable. By the end they are so mortal, so intricate and vibrantly constructed it seems impossible to believe they could have been woven together with merely ink and imagination. I rarely come across authors with Strout's uncanny ability for humanizing characters and like many of her devoted fans I was eagerly awaiting The Burgess Boys.

I am sad to say this is the first book I have read by Ms. Strout that I found incredibly hard to get through. The Burgess Boys is a book -- A rectangle whose cloud covered cover was plainly visible on my bedside table. I felt the book in my hands as I was reading and unlike its predecessors it didn't demolish my afternoon or obscure my peripheral vision. The characters lie flat. They almost feel like hasty charcoal sketches or unsuccessful photographs. I kept waiting for Bob or Jim or Susan Burgess to take on dimension, to animate and electrify the way Olive or Amy and Isabelle had, but unfortunately they never did. The entire Burgess family seem like generic stereotypes encountered over and over again. The book felt cliched and uninspired, like a tour through Crate and Barrel, a lunch of Wonder bread or discovering another Starbucks looming on yet another street corner. In Strout's previous books no matter how dreadful, disillusioned or unhinged a character was I still found them impossible to abandon. I loved them -- all crazed and disheveled, all ruddy, wicked and broken. The characters in this new novel are like people at a horrendously boring cocktail party. You hope you sneak out before them and never encounter them again.

The plot of The Burgess Boys isn't terrible but I didn't find it very engrossing. The book alternates between the Burgess siblings lives, and when Susan Burgess' son commits an appalling criminal act it links them together again and forces them to confront their childhood and dredge up traumas from the past. I do like an intriguing plot but I come back to Strout primarily for her characters -- those great ghosts that still stand, defying gravity and logic. The characters in The Burgess Boys feel stillborn beside them. However, I will continue to read Strout's novels because she is without a doubt a fiendishly talented writer and I know that somewhere inside her the most extraordinary lives are lurking -- just waiting for her to raise them up, and set them upon us.
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31 of 35 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Unforgettable Characterization, February 4, 2013
This review is from: The Burgess Boys: A Novel (Hardcover)
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The creation and motivation of fictional characters can often be mundane for the experienced reader. Elizabeth Strout is the author who surprises me with her depth of character development and weaves these intricate individuals into a plot that is timely and thought provoking.

In this brilliant novel, we are introduced to The Burgess Boys as one mother and daughter from Shirley Falls, Maine discuss the Burgess family and then Strout takes leave of this technique, and we fall into this incredible story.

Three children: Jim, an out-going attorney who never outwardly fails, has always been intent on degrading his brother Bob, also an attorney, but who has a sweetness about him. Bob's twin sister, Susan, has remained in Shirley Falls as an adult and a single mother, connected only to the town and her only son, Zachary. The brothers live in New York, Bob is divorced and drinks too much and Jim, highly successful, is married with three children.

In this very white community in Maine, Somalis have come to live fleeing the travesties of Mogadishu. Zachary, who has been bullied since he was little, throws a pig's head into their mosque. The reader is never sure why he did it and Zachary didn't mean to hurt anyone. Zachary's fate is dependent upon the legal skill of his uncles, particularly Jim, and the political goals of the townspeople. Strout uses this incident as an informative technique of immigration, politics and small town nuances. However, this is not the real strength to the book. It is the Burgess family.

Strout takes us into the lives of the three children and uses the secondary characters to enhance their dysfunction, intelligence and goodness. Helen, wife of Jim, is the most interesting character; her dialogue always surprised me. When I thought she would be sympathetic she wasn't, when I was prepared to hear her pontificate about her values, she didn't. Her response and actions were fascinating. Her husband Jim, a complex man, fighting his own demons has made his place in the world as a renowned defense attorney. When he tries to help Zachary, it is explosive but well-meaning. Bob is also flawed and is drowning in alcohol and remorse. Pam, Bob's ex-wife plays an important role and Steve, Susan's ex-husband significantly moves the plot. Susan is a self-deprecating mother whose needs are many.

This is a great story about a family, with an early tragedy, and it is timely. Strout has things happen so the plot doesn't stagnate. She is a master, and I highly recommend this book.
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40 of 50 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Predictable and a Bit Tedious, February 16, 2013
This review is from: The Burgess Boys: A Novel (Hardcover)
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Pulitzer Prize winning author Elizabeth Strout's newest novel revolves around the Burgess family - the twins Susan and Bob, and older brother Jim. Raised in the rural Maine town of Shirley Falls, all have been affected by a traumatic event at a tender age. As they sat in their father's car playing, the car rolled forward killing their father who was outside. The guilt falls hardest on Bob who was four at the time and behind the wheel touching the gears when it happened.

When the novel opens all three are adults. Jim is a highly successful criminal defense attorney married to Helen. Bob is a divorced Legal Aid attorney who handles appeals as he can no longer handle the pressure of court room work. Susan is an optometrist, divorced and raising a teenage son alone. Jim and Bob live in upscale Park Slope in Brooklyn, New York, while Susan remains in Shirley Falls. When Susan's loner son Zack throws a pig's head into a Somali mosque in town and is arrested her attorney brothers rush to his aid. This sets in motion a series of events which will impact their lives and reveal the lies with which they have been living.

Strout explores loneliness, lies and betrayals but it is all tedious and predictable. The mosque incident fizzles after it serves its purpose in portraying feel good political correctness. The characters are all unlikeable. Susan is always angry. Jim is arrogant. His wife Helen is self-centered. Bob the most likeable of the group is distant. Gone is the quietly lyrical prose of 'Olive Kitteridge'. I found 'The Burgess Boys' disappointing.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The Burgess Boys (and their extended family) need help..., April 8, 2013
This review is from: The Burgess Boys: A Novel (Hardcover)
A good friend recently mentioned that she has difficulty with a book when she doesn't like any of the characters. I thought a lot about that statement while finishing The Burgess Boys. I loved Strout's Olive Kitteridge; even though Olive was prickly and unlikeable, the layers of her personality and motivations were beautifully revealed through the viewpoints of other characters in the linked stories. I was hoping for more of the same in The Burgess Boys, but I couldn't find it. While I did find several likeable characters, Bobby Burgess and Somali cafe owner Abdikarim Ahmed, most of the others were either flat and uninteresting or overblown caricatures.

The Burgess kids, Jim, Bob, and Susan, were born and raised in Shirley Falls, Maine. When Bob is four years old, he is involved in a tragic accident with the family car, resulting in the death of his father. This tragedy shapes the Burgess family members' lives into adulthood. Both Jim and Bob become lawyers, and leave Maine, while Susan stays. Shirley Falls is a failing small town with an increasing population of Somali refugees. Susan's teenage son, Zach, rolls a frozen pig's head into a mosque, and Jim and Bob head home to Shirley Falls to help Zach. They end up reprising their well-worn familial roles, Jim as the hotshot who is really a blustering bully, Bob as the passive brother burdened by his sensitivity who worships Jim even while he is the target of his cruelty, and sad Susan, who has even been excluded from the title.

The story is mildly interesting but I had too many problems with the book to give it more than three stars. Even though his actions set the story in motion, Zach's character is never fully developed. He remains an enigma, unable to understand or articulate his reasons for the crime. Maybe this is a reflection of being a teenager in Shirley Falls but I could have used more insight into Zach as a person. Another under-developed character, Abdikarim Ahmed is a Somali refugee in Shirley Falls. We do learn a little about his life, but as one of the most interesting and sympathetic people in the novel, I would have been glad to better understand him. Eventually and sadly, Zach and the Somalis become an afterthought in the book.

Two of the characters are too over-developed, Bob's ex-wife, Pam, and especially Jim's wife, Helen. Helen and her thoughts occupy a surprisingly large part of the novel and she is so overblown and odious that I could only think of her as a clueless caricature.

In trying to understand why I didn't like The Burgess Boys more, I think that Strout has a great grasp on Maine and its inhabitants, and maybe I would have appreciated this book more if it hadn't been watered down with Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Sweden.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Burgess Boys, February 2, 2013
This review is from: The Burgess Boys: A Novel (Hardcover)
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There is much to admire about THE BURGESS BOYS, the latest novel from Elizabeth Strout, whose collection of linked stories OLIVE KITTERIDGE won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2009. It addresses a wide range of contemporary issues: the differences between life in rural Maine and life in New York City; the ambivalence their hometowns bring on in people who have escaped them; the movement of Somali migrants into Maine and the resulting tensions with the state's overwhelmingly white population; the failures of empathy and small, perhaps inescapable bigotries found even among well-meaning people; and the empty nest syndrome and other anxieties of parenting. The characters, sometimes perilously close to types, are nonetheless well worked-out, recognizably human in their strengths and weaknesses and changeable moods. The thematic purpose of each scene is obvious, and the prose, though short on Strout's usual humor and warmth, is taut and elegant. What's missing is any narrative or dramatic momentum, any sense of the novel closing in on its deepest purpose and revealing something unexpected and haunting. In the absence of such a center, THE BURGESS BOYS offers free-floating scenes that work well on their own but don't build, characters all dressed up with no place to go.

The Burgess boys of the title are Jim and Bob. When they were children in Shirley Falls, Maine, their father was killed in a freak accident caused by four-year-old Bob. Now Jim is a famous defense attorney, Bob is also a lawyer, and they both live in New York City. But Shirley Falls comes back into their lives because of their nephew Zach, son of Susan, the sister who stayed behind. Zach has thrown a pig's head into a Somali mosque, and a hate crimes prosecution with jail time seems possible. Jim, brash, connected, and nastily sarcastic, and Bob, sympathetic but clueless and borderline alcoholic, are drawn into a loosely-connected sequence of events that will change their lives, for better and for worse. But THE BURGESS BOYS isn't just about Jim and Bob. It's also about Susan, unable to connect to her son, and Zach, unable to connect to anyone; about Jim's wife Helen, perched over the vortex of life without her now-grown children, and Bob's ex-wife Pam, perhaps the richest character in the novel, flawed, somewhat manipulative, yet deeply sympathetic; about the old woman who rents a room in Susan's house, and one of the Somali men of Shirley Falls, and Jim's law partner's wife Dorothy, and a Unitarian minister, and... This omniscient approach worked well in Strout's first novel, AMY AND ISABELLE, and the interwoven stories of the marvelous OLIVE KITTERIDGE had a similar effect, but here the shifts are jarring. The characters rarely evolve or reveal new facets of themselves between appearances, so the movement among them is unfocused rather than panoramic, even when the literary logic behind a given moment is evident. It's as if something is constantly being withheld, and the reader wants to stay with a given character and find out what, but Strout is already moving on.

The plot has a similarly frustrating looseness of movement. The mosque incident, hinting at a certain type of social novel, winds down gradually, almost dutifully, without ever really starting up, and the familial conflicts and revealed secrets that replace it are so familiar as to verge on the banal, threatening to turn Jim and Bob into figures from a morality play rather than three-dimensional characters. And they happen very abruptly, as if Strout, aware all this lacks the complexity of true drama, is hurrying past on the way to something more interesting, something that never comes into view. A finale that ought to be touchingly redemptive falls flat because it reads not as a finale but as the next thing to happen to these characters, the lead-in to a dramatic climax that doesn't arrive. (It doesn't help that a particular relationship key to the denouement is so lightly sketched as to suggest authorial heavy-handedness rather than a genuine human connection.) The characters and themes here are those of a great novel, but Strout hasn't found the ideal way to arrange and examine them. The result is a book that keeps its reader at arm's length, admiring occasional images or descriptions of emotion and impressed with the diligent balancing of ideas, but never quite feeling the intimate connection with the protagonists toward which the author is obviously striving. THE BURGESS BOYS, like its characters, is searching for warmth, but unlike those characters, it ends up leaving you out in the cold.
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The Burgess Boys: A Novel
The Burgess Boys: A Novel by Elizabeth Strout (Hardcover - March 26, 2013)
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