Thursday, March 7, 2013

Review: The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout

Title:  The Burgess Boys
Author: Elizabeth Strout
Publisher: Random House (pub date Mar 26,2013) 336 pages
Genre: Literary fiction
Subject: Family relationships
Setting: New York, Maine
Source: Publisher ARC from Early Review Program at  
Why did I read this book now?  Love the author and couldn't wait.

Elizabeth Strout's newest story The Burgess Boys is, if possible, even better than her Pulitzer winning effort Olive Kitteridge.  She based her story on an actual incident that occurred in Lewiston Maine in July 2006 where someone threw a frozen pig's head into a mosque full of worshippers.  The perpetrator claimed it was meant to be a joke, and the police treated it as a misdemeanor.

Strout frames her story on the Burgess family - adult brothers Jim and Bob, both attorneys, sister Susan (Bob's twin) and Susan's son Zach who throws the pig. The authorities are determined to bring hate crime charges against Zach. As the issues of assimilating Somali immigrants into the community swirl, and as the family becomes embroiled in resolving deep seated sibling rivalries, ruined marriages, and the different perspectives of various family members: Mainers vs those who are "from away" we get a true picture of life in Maine today.

Jim, a highly successful New York corporate attorney, wants nothing more to do with Maine.  Brother Bob plods away as a public advocate in New York, basking in his brother's light, enjoying family life vicariously through Jim's family, but remaining in touch with his ex-wife.  Neither brother wants to return to Maine, and neither is in close contact with sister Susan who ekes out an existance as a single parent (her ex lives in Sweden) in their hometown of Shirley Falls Maine.  Zach, a recluse and troubled adolescent, inadvertently sets a firestorm of family emotions into action when his actions lead his mother to call on her brothers to help keep Zach out of jail.

Elizabeth Strout has given us an deeply moving portrait of a family dealing with painful and buried memories, of a community dealing with a diversity of cultures unknown to heretofor all white Maine, and of legal issues that can become exacerbated by misunderstanding, lack of knowledge and fear of the unknown.  The characters in this one are even more sharply drawn than those in Olive Kitteridge.  The story is clear, crisp, at times bluntly cruel, but always empathetic towards the feelings and issues swirling around having a large group of "different" people suddenly inserted into a community that was not prepared for them, and for which they (the refugees) were also unprepared.

How the Burgess boys deal with their sister, their painful childhood memories and  their failing marriages, how the community deals with issues of racial, religious and cultural diversity, and how a single mom deals with a troubled teen-ager are inter-woven threads of a magnificent novel. I consider Elizabeth Strout one of Maine's treasures. I want to own and read anything she does. Her prose is like a painting of Maine: painfully blunt, colorful, windy, soothing, sunny, rainy, etc. Exquisite.  It's sure to make of the best of the best lists of the year!

Many thanks to Random House for making this available through's Early Reviewer program.


  1. A new author for me. Am going to see what is available in the library.

  2. So happy to see that you enjoyed this one; anxious to try it myself.

  3. I must read Elizabeth Strout soon. Too many books set in Maine show what to me is a ridiculous picture of people and life there. This particular title sounds very interesting.

  4. This is a fabulous book and will probably make it on to next year's list for the "Maine Readers Choice Award." It'll be on a lot of other lists, too. Your review hits it on the head.


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