“The Burgess Boys” by Elizabeth Strout – Mainly in Maine

“The Burgess Boys” by Elizabeth Strout  (2013) – 320 pages

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I had two vivid impressions while reading “The Burgess Boys”.

The first impression was positive.  In the novel we are introduced to many people from different family backgrounds and differing life situations.  It is fascinating how these people interact with each other and become a part of each other’s lives. One of the main reasons I read novels is to have this quality of unique people bumping into each other and intermingling in varying ways.  There is this sense of lived life in “The Burgess Boys”.

The second impression was not so positive.  That is concerning the plot, the major action around which the entire story pivots.  The son of one of the Burgesses throws a butchered pig’s head into a Somali mosque on Ramadan and gets into endless legal trouble.  This son is a social sad sack misfit, and this act is committed for little apparent reason.  It is a mindless, senseless, meaningless act.  This seems like a small peg to build an entire novel around.

I would have much preferred that this act were performed for specific concrete reasons.  For example, maybe instead have the boy impressionable and easily swayed by an adult he admires who has contempt for Muslims.  There are certainly enough Americans who have a deep contempt and hatred for Muslims.  Then Strout could have dealt with a valid issue, deep-seated prejudice in small towns like this small Maine town of Shirley Falls.  Dealing with a real issue would have given the story intensity and passion.  However we have this squeamish near mental case of a boy doing something even he can’t comprehend.  This seemed like a copout by the author and made everything else seem scattered and without a point.

Because the episode around which the entire plot is built is so ambiguous, the novel seems discursive and stuck on the surface.  We never get to the root of anyone, because no one has any real strong beliefs or feelings. Novels which have many story lines happening at the same time can sometimes amount to more than their parts.  However the stories in “The Burgess Boys” did not coalesce for me into a satisfactory whole.  Toward the end of the novel the focus changes from the boy and Shirley Falls to the New York City lives of the two Burgess brothers.  This seems like a salvaging effort for the novel which does not succeed.

Before this novel, Elizabeth Strout wrote “Olive Kitteridge” which was a more successful book.  That novel was made up of related stories of people in a small Maine town.  It didn’t matter and probably was a good thing that we stayed on the surface of people’s lives, because we were only with them for twenty or thirty pages.  However for “The Burgess Boys”, staying on the surface is deadly.  A long novel cannot be sustained with just a cursory overview of a lot of people.  The reader will soon lose interest unless the author cuts to the chase and tells us precisely what is troubling these people.  We don’t want some amorphous ennui or nervous tension or indigestion.  We want real people with real problems to which we can relate.

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