Reading an Elizabeth Strout novel is like peering into your neighbor’s windows. Where Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Olive Kitteridge” was a photo album of characters finessing domestic dynamics, her latest novel, “The Burgess Boys,” is a similarly artful depiction of how three siblings, battered by circumstance, secrets and familial expectation, stay loyal to each other despite very familiar failings.
The story opens in a neighborhood in Brooklyn where people exude “a sense of being exactly where they [want] to be.” From their darkly paneled home, famous lawyer Jim Burgess and his fit wife, Helen, plan vacations, adjust to life as empty nesters, and show charity to Jim’s divorced and hapless brother, Bob, “a likable fellow” who lives blocks away but on the wrong side of the tracks.
Their sister, Susan, remains in their childhood town of Shirley Falls, Maine. Divorced and raising a sad, sulking son alone, she wears reindeer sweaters and oversized shirts and is given to tirades about Somalis who have immigrated to the mostly white town. When Susan’s son, Zach, is accused of a hate crime, the brothers, Jim and Bob, are called back to their hometown to help.
There is a nuanced tension in the novel, evoked by beautiful and detailed writing. Strout’s manifestations of envy, pride, guilt, selflessness, bigotry and love are subtle and spot-on. For example, when she hears that Zach has disappeared on the eve of his arraignment, Jim’s wife is worried for her nephew but secretly feels “a tiny sliver of something that was sharp and thrilled” — as if child-rearing were a competitive sport and she is winning. Similarly, Jim is brutal to his younger brother, Bob (calling him alternately “Bozo” and “Slob-Dog”) — yet defends him ferociously when he is in trouble. And Bob, the devoted younger brother, is unable to even consider that Jim might be the cause of his messed-up life. For example, watching his brother speak at a tolerance rally, Bob’s feelings are mixed and complex. Just as he sees that “these people [seem] wrapped in some large shawl that Jim grew closer to him,” he also has “no idea that what he felt was envy. He knew only that he stood there feeling very bad, when before he felt hopeful. … But still. His heart unfolded with love.”
It’s easy to recognize yourself and people you know in Strout’s characters; the story clips along as you feel a voyeuristic compulsion to see if the siblings will overcome their own worst tendencies. You wonder, for example, if Jim will self-destruct under the weight of his secret, or if Susan will turn her parenting skills around and save her son, or if Bob, the family scapegoat, will find the happiness he deserves.
Christine Brunkhorst is a Minneapolis writer and reviewer.