Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Burgess Boys

Get ready lovers of Elizabeth Strout! Just one more month until her next novel, The Burgess Boys, hits the streets. I was able to get an advanced copy for my nook, finishing it last month. I've been hesitating to put my thoughts into words because I had to mull over my reactions to be sure I was being fair. I can honestly say that Olive Kitteridge was probably one of my all-time favorite books and a lively book discussion to boot. The Burgess Boys? They took longer to love.

Ms. Strout has an affinity for creating characters who are difficult. Olive was gloriously ornery but we readers knew that her prickly surface hid a compassionate heart. Jim Burgess, on the other hand, is just downright rotten, an egotistical, bloviating snob who treats his younger brother Bob and Bob's sister, Susan, in an appallingly demeaning and mean spirited way. Even this reprehensible behavior could be understood, if not forgiven, if Strout gave us reasons to do so.

Most disturbing is that Jim's entire life has been predicated on a childhood lie that has wrought terrible emotional damage on the other members of the family. I think we can all agree on a simple truth. We can't help the family that we're born into and sometimes, perhaps even often, we may love our siblings but we might not necessarily be friends. This can be particularly true when time and distance keep brothers and sisters apart. It certainly is the case with the Burgesses.

Born and raised in an Olive Kitteridge type town in Maine, Jim got out quickly and headed to Manhattan where he's a big muckety-muck attorney with political ambitions. Bob, who adores and looks up to his big brother no matter the abuse, also lives in Manhattan and works as an attorney. He though, ends up doing a lot of pro-bono and good works. The bad brother has a loyal wife of thirty years and perfect children who follow the rules. The good brother's wife left him for someone more exciting, but when she wants to talk heart to heart, guess who she turns to? Doesn't it figure? Life is so strange. Of course, it's those little inequities in the world that Strout excels at writing about.

What brings the siblings back into each other's orbits with a vengeance is a bizarre act of vandalism committed by Susan's troubled son Zach, an action so out of character and out of the blue that Zach can't articulate what on earth he was thinking. A cry for attention? A catalyst for a shake up of the status quo? An opportunity to bring himself to the attention of the dad who left him behind and moved to Europe?

Susan seems incapable of dealing with her son. They are two lost souls sharing the run down family home back in Maine. But as first Bob, and then Jim, return reluctantly to Shirley Falls, Bob trying to get to know Zach and make a connection, Jim blustering his way into lawyer's offices and courthouses, the three siblings tentatively, sadly, one step forward, two steps back, begin the long process of reacquainting.

Elizabeth Strout, in person, is funny, quirky, self-deprecating and delightful. Her personality says "let's have a glass of wine and chat," not "I'm a Pulitzer Prize winner, don't touch me." She is more approachable than her characters could ever be. And yet she plumbs the depths of complex family relationships, peeling back layer after layer like a surgeon with his scalpel, until all you can see is the dirty bits. Then, with empathy, she manages to rescue these folks from themselves. It's a literary miracle and one I never tire of.

Jim Burgess is no Olive Kitteridge but you'll want to meet him just the same. March 26th. Watch for it.