How can we keep from falling into the same old patterns and traps of our childhood? Can we ever break free of the pull of family dynamics? These questions are at the crux of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Elizabeth Strout's new novel, The Burgess Boys.
Jim, Bob, and Susan Burgess were raised by their mother in the small town of Shirley Falls, Maine, following the death of their father in a freak accident when they were young. Jim was always the strong one, the hero; Bob, the sensitive one, always seemed to get the most love from their mother, while his twin sister, Susan, bore the brunt of her mother's rages and insecurities. As soon as they were able, Jim and Bob fled Shirley Falls for New YorkJim became a corporate lawyer after garnering some notoriety defending a celebrity client, while Bob settled for a career as a Legal Aid attorney. Susan stayed in Shirley Falls, married, divorced, and raised a son on her own, and was never able to overcome the self-esteem issues she suffered because of her mother. All their lives, Jim has belittled Bob's every movethe collapse of his marriage and subsequent romantic relationships, his work for Legal Aid, even his apartment. And while everyone has told Bob to stand up for himself, he idolizes Bob, so he has allowed himself to be treated this way.
One day, Susan calls Jim for help. Her lonely teenage son, Zach, apparently rolled a bloody pig's head into a Somali mosque during Ramadan. He doesn't know why he did it, except that he intended it as a joke, because he didn't even know what Ramadan was. Zach's actions have ignited a firestorm in Shirley Falls, where an influx of Somali immigrants had already been causing strain among the long-time residents. Jim and Bob come home to try and assuage Susan and Zach's fears, and Jim tries to smooth things over with the political and legal community. And as Jim's meddling actually makes things worse than better, and the three siblings find themselves reliving old habits and old hurts, all of the anxieties and pain are magnified, causing ripples in their relationships with each other, as well as Jim's relationship with his wife, Helen.
Elizabeth Strout is a very talented writer, and she has created a compelling story of family dynamics and what it feels like to be an outsider, both in reality and within your own family. While the premise of her story is appealing, her characters are not, at least through nearly the entire book. I really struggled with why I cared what happened to these people when I didn't have any sympathy for passive Susan, guilt-ridden and sad-sack Bob, or boorishly aggressive and angry Jim. Even the gradual (or in some cases, sudden) transformations they make didn't completely win me over, although I understood the catalysts for them occurring.
Can you enjoy a book when you have no empathy for the main characters? That answer differs for me from book to book; in the case of The Burgess Boys, I'd say it was a well-written book I didn't enjoy as much as I had hoped.