Tuesday, July 23, 2013

"The Burgess Boys" by Elizabeth Strout

I really enjoyed Strout's Olive Kitteridge, but, reading the summary of The Burgess Boys, I wasn't too excited. I think that's because anything that rings "family saga" tends to bore me--I can only read so much of tense relationships, fraught feelings, and long inner monologues. And a summary that begins "haunted by..." is even worse.

So I was predisposed against the novel, and maybe, for that reason, it met my expectations. It certainly wasn't bad, and Strout is adept at capturing the nuances and contradictions present in any relationships--romantic and family--but I just couldn't care all that much.

The novel is about the Burgess siblings--Jim, Bob, and Susan--though the brothers are the focus. The family grew up in Maine, but only Susan remains there with her son, Zach. After Zach is arrested for throwing a pig's head into a Somali mosque during Ramadan, the siblings are brought back together.

Jim is idolized by his siblings, and though we're told about his magnetism, it's hard to see his charm in the novel. He overreacts to Zach's situation (we're told he's the person who "takes care" of things, but he seems to mostly freak out and be grumpy) and is terrible to Bob. His abusive behavior to Bob is all the more confusing given that Bob seems like a decent guy. We're told by his siblings what a loser he is, but there's little evidence of that (other than some heavy drinking early on). I suppose the point is that sibling relationships don't always make sense to outsiders. Instead, within a family, people are assigned certain roles and characteristics, and those assigned personas are difficult to lose.

From the initial rush of activity after Zach's arrest, little happens. The characters go back and forth from New York City to Maine. They think a lot about life or whatever. They're mean to one another. 

As a character, Zach is the most underdeveloped. He's a scared, quiet kid, who had little reason to throw the pig's head in the mosque. It's clear he didn't mean it maliciously, and some of the officials' attempts to prosecute it as a hate crime is overreaching, but he also gets off the hook quite easy. I mean, the kid's scared, so he isn't responsible for anything?

The characterization of the individuals' relationship is expertly done, but there wasn't enough in their lives or problems for me to be invested.

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