…fluid and compassionate … There is a geographic extension of the Burgess boys’ rivalries in the complex tensions between Mainers and New Yorkers, and it’s hard to think of anyone more convincing on this subject than Elizabeth Strout. Tough, blunt Susan bears some resemblance to the magnificent Maine character of Olive Kitteridge. The brothers themselves have divided emotions when it comes to their old home: the familiar landscape makes Bob ‘unutterably happy,’ while Jim finds the bleakness ‘unbelievably depressing’ … Strout handles her storytelling with grace, intelligence and low-key humor, demonstrating a great ear for the many registers in which people speak to their loved ones.
Shirley Falls represents many places where the manufacturing industry has died, the young people have left and newcomers, in this case Somali immigrants with memories of atrocities and loss, have made their homes … This is not a story of good versus evil but a complex and bold examination of political and family relationships, of the long-term effect of guilt and lies, of people's motives and failures and muddled intentions. The image of the half-thawed bleeding head persists, like the yellow house on the hill, as strongly as anything in this engrossing, memorable and, despite everything, hopeful bulletin from Shirley Falls.
The awful act in The Burgess Boys is so strange that the book can hardly accommodate it. Shirley Falls has a sizable population of Somalis, or, as bigoted local residents call them, ‘Somalians.’ Maine has lost much of its young work force, and these Somalis are drawn to its peace, quiet and lack of political strife. But then — and you may have to read this sentence twice — Zach mischievously rolls a frozen pig’s head into their mosque during Ramadan … While Ms. Strout espouses empathy with the Shirley Falls Somalis, she draws them without much specificity. She creates no serious reaction to Zach’s assault on them. And she gives one Somali man, Abdikarim, such preternatural kindness that he cares more about Zach’s well-being than his own group’s … For all its potential and Ms. Strout’s proven skill, The Burgess Boys asks too many questions and offers too few interesting answers.
The broad social and political range of The Burgess Boys shows just how impressively this extraordinary writer continues to develop … Having set up this triangle of unequal siblings, Strout immediately places them under stress that will reshape their long-settled relationships to one another … Strout is something of a connoisseur of emotional cruelty. But does anyone capture middle age quite as tenderly? Those latent fears — of change, of not changing, of being alone, of being stuck forever with the same person. There seems no limit to her sympathy, her ability to express, without the acrid tone of irony, our selfish, needy anxieties that only family can aggravate — and quell.
The Burgess Boys shares milestones with Strout's previous book — people have affairs and get divorced and get together and miss their children — but the events feel heavier here, perhaps because they involve a trial and questions about prejudice. And the characters seem ill-equipped to deal with these events … Some of the most compelling parts of The Burgess Boys aren't about the Burgesses at all but about people in the town. This may be unnerving for readers focused on the title characters, but it's a reminder of where Strout is strong … But in The Burgess Boys, as she writes of Jim and Bob, Somalians and Mainers, law firms and marriages, Strout isn't able to pull the disparate pieces together. Somehow, in writing a novel, Strout has lost the story.
Cycling between Bob, Susan, the hypocritical Pam, and a range of other characters, the book explores this clash of worlds from the insiders’ perspectives. But Strout takes on a whole other challenge: She tells parts of the story in the voice of Abdikarim Ahmed, a Somali café owner...Strout hesitates to imbue Abdikarim with human flaws. He plays a martyr-like role as the only member of the Somali community to recognize Zach’s innocent nature, and his ineffable goodness begs for a counterweight that Strout never provides … Though Strout is one of contemporary fiction’s best interpreters of human feeling, her seeming lack of confidence undermines her ambitious and commendable project.
The Burgess Boys is not only a novel — it's a big, floppy, shambling jumble sale of a novel. I mostly loved it because it feels like life: Color it chaotic … This is an ambitious novel that wants to train its gaze on the flotsam and jetsam of thought, as well as on big-issue topics like the politics of immigration and the possibility of second chances. The Burgess Boys can be overly sentimental sometimes and too contrived, but Strout can really nail things in her precise but unprissy language … The most resonant parts of The Burgess Boys, however, are the long, sprawling sections that delve into the family dynamics, especially the damaged, delusional yet still essential relationship between Jim and Bob. It's because this novel is messy and wrinkled and digressive that it ultimately rings true.
Strout grafts her fictional family melodrama onto actual headline-making events that occurred in 2006 in Lewiston, Maine, in an attempt to paint on a bigger socio-political canvas (And in so doing proves she's better at mining the intricacies of intimate relationships) … But as The Burgess Boys slyly unfolds, Strout turns the idea of hero worship on its head and delivers a touching answer to the age-old question of whether you can or can't go home again. Boys never comes close to Olive-like perfection. But there are more than enough flashes of ironic humor and magnanimous compassion to remind you how good Strout can be.
Strout is a fracking expert: She excels at penetrating the granite surface of New England reserve to expose its beating heart. The problem with the latest novel is that she waters down her impact by probing new territory — both the tentative Muslim immigrant presence in the Burgesses’ hometown and the shallow professional class that populates Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn … Neither of these side trips feels compelling. Rather, the strange bond between the Burgess boys is the emotional guts of the book. Stuck in a relationship that seems doomed to end where it started, they face a new family trauma and redefine the old.
The plot springs into action when Susan's troubled son, Zack, is arrested for throwing a pig's head into a Somali mosque in Shirley Falls. There is a large Somali population in Shirley Falls, and it's the divisive topic of much town talk. Zack is a scared, confused kid who did something wrong, but in short order the crime has gained national attention amid talk of ‘hate crimes’ and ‘terrorism.’ The siblings will meet, fight and meet again as they try to help Zack, and perhaps also learn some hard truths about each other. What Strout does best is capture those honest, often unpretty little moments, those politically incorrect thoughts and family cruelties. She understands and conveys the loneliness and isolation that occur in both families and communities, and explores the roles we all play in our families, and if we can ever escape our childhood labels.
The siblings in The Burgess Boys aren’t dysfunctional as much as they are family members who don’t much like each other. There are no heroes or villains in Elizabeth Strout’s families, her work is more subtle than that. Instead, her characters are simply human and subject to the ingrained dynamics that define their relationships … Strout writes in a close third person, following each of her central characters except for Jim. It is an approach that makes him unknowable, and his fate the most surprising. She tackles intolerance, at the societal level but also at the level she sees most keenly, within a family.
Living beneath a shadow of loss and blame around their father's death when they were small children, Jim and Bob escaped their home state of Maine for New York as soon as they possibly could. Yet ties to home and family supersede their desire to break free. This tension drives the novel as the brothers grapple with their relationship, their midlife identities and a rising family crisis … [Strout] is a master storyteller. Through the lens of this particular family history, The Burgess Boys grapples with identity, marriage, race, immigration, class, and politics. A keen observer who writes gorgeous, clean prose, she brings the situation and her characters to life with intense emotions and hugely satisfying moments of surprise.
The scenario gives Strout an opportunity to explore the culture of the Somalis who have immigrated to the state in recent years—a handful of scenes are told from the perspective of a Somali cafe owner, baffled by American arrogance, racism and cruelty. But this is mainly a carefully manicured study of domestic (American and household) dysfunction with some rote messages about the impermanence of power and the goodness that resides in hard-luck souls—it gives nothing away to say that Jim comes to a personal reckoning and that Bob isn’t quite the doormat he’s long been thought to be … A skilled but lackluster novel that dutifully ticks off the boxes of family strife, infidelity and ripped-from-the-headlines issues.
The Burgesses have troubles both public and secret: sour, divorced Susan, who stayed in the family’s hometown of Shirley Falls, Maine, with her teenage son Zachary; big-hearted Bob, who feels guilty about their father’s fatal car accident; and celebrity defense lawyer Jim, who moved to Brooklyn, N.Y. When Zachary hurls a bloody pig’s head into a Somali mosque during Ramadan, fragile connections between siblings, the Somalis, and other Shirley Falls residents are tested … Strout excels in constructing an intricate web of circuitous family drama, which makes for a powerful story, but the familiarity of the novel’s questions and a miraculously disentangled denouement drain the story of depth.