Summary and book reviews of The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout

The Burgess Boys

by Elizabeth Strout

The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout X
The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2013, 336 pages
    Paperback:
    Apr 2014, 352 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Poornima Apte
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About this Book

Book Summary

Elizabeth Strout "animates the ordinary with an astonishing force," wrote The New Yorker on the publication of her Pulitzer Prize–winning Olive Kitteridge. The San Francisco Chronicle praised Strout's "magnificent gift for humanizing characters." Now the acclaimed author returns with a stunning novel as powerful and moving as any work in contemporary literature.

Haunted by the freak accident that killed their father when they were children, Jim and Bob Burgess escaped from their Maine hometown of Shirley Falls for New York City as soon as they possibly could. Jim, a sleek, successful corporate lawyer, has belittled his bighearted brother their whole lives, and Bob, a Legal Aid attorney who idolizes Jim, has always taken it in stride. But their long-standing dynamic is upended when their sister, Susan—the Burgess sibling who stayed behind—urgently calls them home. Her lonely teenage son, Zach, has gotten himself into a world of trouble, and Susan desperately needs their help. And so the Burgess brothers return to the landscape of their childhood, where the long-buried tensions that have shaped and shadowed their relationship begin to surface in unexpected ways that will change them forever.

With a rare combination of brilliant storytelling, exquisite prose, and remarkable insight into character, Elizabeth Strout has brought to life two deeply human protagonists whose struggles and triumphs will resonate with readers long after they turn the final page. Tender, tough-minded, loving, and deeply illuminating about the ties that bind us to family and home, The Burgess Boys is Elizabeth Strout's newest and perhaps most astonishing work of literary art.

1

On a breezy October afternoon in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, Helen Farber Burgess was packing for vacation. A big blue suitcase lay open on the bed, and clothes her husband had chosen the night before were folded and stacked on the lounge chair nearby. Sunlight kept springing into the room from the shifting clouds outside, making the brass knobs on the bed shine brightly and the suitcase become very blue. Helen was walking back and forth between the dressing room—­with its enormous mirrors and white horsehair wallpaper, the dark woodwork around the long window—­walking between that and the bedroom, which had French doors that were closed right now, but in warmer weather opened onto a deck that looked out over the garden. Helen was experiencing a kind of mental paralysis that occurred when she packed for a trip, so the abrupt ringing of the telephone brought relief. When she saw the word private, she knew it was either the wife of one of her...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. How did the narrator's introduction telegraph your expectations about the Burgess family?
  2. Jim and Bob Burgess both left Shirley Falls for New York City. Why there, when they could have gone anywhere? And why did Susan stay behind?
  3. The Burgess siblings have lived with a childhood trauma their whole lives. How has each one compensated for this in his or her personal and professional adult life?
  4. Which Burgess brother, Jim or Bob, did you find more sympathetic? Did you find yourself changing your mind as the story unfolded?
  5. To many readers, Jim may seem more competent than Bob in dealing with Zach's "prank." Do you agree? If not, why not?
  6. What did you learn about the Somali population in Shirley Falls? How do you see this as a ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

The dialog is superb and in Strout's trademark style, entirely unpretentious. The Burgess Boys is an insightful examination of how our childhoods shape and define us even as we struggle to shake loose the ghosts of our past. Fans of Elizabeth Strout will want to read this new one even if it might not rank among her very best. Visiting the hardy Puritan New England state of Maine is always fun in Strout's able hands...continued

Full Review (759 words).

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(Reviewed by Poornima Apte).

Media Reviews

The Boston Globe
...And this is what the novel is really about: people who believe they know who they are and then are disabused of that belief.

Strout’s pursuit of this theme contributes somewhat to the mess, but this is part of this novel’s success: Life is messy, and inevitably, in doing justice to that messiness, the novel ends up replicating it. And in order to forgive or ignore the messiness, the novel must give us something that life does not. Strout's The Burgess Boys' gives us plenty.

NPR
Olive Kitteridge was a book that thrived on the perplexing tragedies of the absolutely ordinary, the invisible losses in a seemingly normal household and its ordinary, middle-class inhabitants. It might have been interesting to meet Susan, Bob and Jim with flaws that had no direct historical cause — the kind most of us have, after all. But if Strout's novel is a little fitful, so is family itself, and her command of it has not wavered.

USA Today
The Burgess Boys never comes close to Olive Kitteridge-like perfection. But there are more than enough flashes of ironic humor and magnanimous compassion to remind you how good Strout can be.

Publishers Weekly
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

Reader Reviews

Becky H

great book for discussion
After starting slowly, The Burgess Boys became quietly fascinating. I kept reading and reading until I finished it in just two days (with many life interruptions). Although I didn’t like Jim, he was spellbinding in his dysfunction. Bob, the much more...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

Somali Immigration to Lewiston, Maine

Years ago, when we were vacationing in Maine, we drove through the city of Portland and I spotted a lady holding a child by the hand. She was dressed in an extremely colorful hijaab and that riot of color really stood out in my mind – I was reminded of that flash of color after I put down The Burgess Boys.

Somali women in Lewiston, MaineThe civil war that wracked Somalia for much of the early '90s meant an increasing number of refugees fleeing the country to distant places, including the United States. While large urban areas such as Atlanta attracted the first wave of Somalis, in the early 2000s, Somali immigrants started making their way into Maine, initially to Portland. Because the city of Portland had very limited affordable housing options, the Somalis ...

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Readalikes

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