The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout

The Burgess Boys

Reviewed by Mia Lipman

When Elizabeth Strout won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009 for her linked story collection, Olive Kitteridge, reviewers praised her gift for elevating the ordinary. Among the rarefied breed of unrushed authors who produce an enviable book every 5 to 10 years (see: Jamaica Kincaid, Junot Díaz, Ann Packer), Strout also has a particular talent for spinning empathy out of misery. Her characters are mean, stupid, bumbling, frustrating, and hard to get enough of.

Strout’s new book, The Burgess Boys, reimagines an unhappy neighbor family from her childhood as even worse off than they probably were: dead father, incompetent mother, blowhard older brother Jim, hopeless younger brother Bob, and wayward sister Susan. The three kids have managed to avoid each other for years, resenting from afar—but when Susan’s teenage son, Zach, acts out by throwing a pig’s head into a mosque, Bob and Jim are forced into an awkward attempt at solidarity to help him survive the public outcry. The Burgess boys never wanted to go back to Shirley Falls, Maine, so they can’t muster much enthusiasm when it becomes obvious they have no choice.

Woven into this family mess are glimpses at the life of a local Muslim man, Abdikarim Ahmed, who emigrated from Somalia and belongs to the mosque that Zach defiled. Strout isn’t quite as successful at reading his mind, but Abdikarim and his family offer a quiet, pointed reflection on what it means to be in community.

Weirdly and brilliantly, Zach turns out to be the moral compass at the center of the Burgess brouhaha. By all accounts a sweet kid, he doesn’t really understand why he did what he did, and the adults around him sure as hell don’t. But in the course of trying to figure it out, each of these broken people manages to do a little better than usual. Also a lot worse—there are no miracle cures in Strout’s world. But the moments of connection, through hatred as well as love, are riveting.

Only a writer this deeply tapped into how humans work could make you want to sit still and watch as the Burgesses flail, suffer, and endure.

Random House, March 2013

ISBN-10: 1400067685

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Mia Lipman

Mia Lipman is the former reviews editor of San Francisco magazine, a founding editor of Canteen magazine, and the host of Lit Fix, a quarterly reading and music series in Seattle.