The refrain of Elizabeth Strout’s new novel is simple: “Nobody ever knows anyone.” How could we, when all of us are so good at hiding the truth?
Strout examines this idea — and others — with a great deal of care in The Burgess Boys. She lays bare the prison of filial roles (someone’s always the smartest, someone is always hopeless, and shaking off those assessments is almost impossible). She notes the ways in which we feel cursed, not blessed, by change and how swiftly or slowly we adapt to new homes. She delves into the lingering repercussions of tragedy and the nature of racism. But her main purpose in this smart, surprising, unsentimental novel is to peel back the layers of lies and half-truths that dictate the lives of the Burgesses, their spouses (current and former) and those in their orbit in the aftermath of a family crisis.
Author of Amy and Isabelle, about a combative mother-daughter relationship, and Olive Kitteridge, a novel-in-stories for which she won the Pulitzer Prize, Strout excels at creating characters who are all sharp edges and angles. They can be intractable, acerbic. Strout’s great gift is to allow these flinty individuals their unattractive qualities and still humanize them enough to provoke empathy. Olive Kitteridge, for example, is not a woman for whom you would feel immediate affection. But by the end of the book she has carved out a rough space in your heart.
The characters in the The Burgess Boys are equally complicated. They’re haunted by the past, middle-aged but still caught up in childhood roles. The Boys are Jim (wealthy and famous lawyer, married to Helen, who is trying not to get too squirrelly about her suddenly empty Park Slope nest) and Bob (vague, inept, divorced and probably drinking more than is good for him). His siblings make allowances for Bob, who is responsible for the great Burgess tragedy: As a small child, he put the car in gear and killed their father. Every step he has taken since that moment has been shaped by that act.
There is a Burgess Girl, too: Susan, also divorced, strange, prickly and prone to hysteria, always an afterthought. The Boys fled Shirley Falls, Maine, for New York years before — “Why would anyone go to Shirley Falls except in shackles?” Helen asks — but Susan and her teenage son remain in the small town, where an influx of Muslim immigrants from Somalia is polarizing locals who consider themselves freethinkers but find themselves uneasy at all the dark faces.
When Zach, Susan’s uncommunicative son, pulls a prank at a mosque, Susan immediately calls Jim for support, but Bob shows up instead. He is not only of no comfort to his sister; he has issues with her. “He wanted to tell her that not even remotely was this how people lived, that this is why he had not come here for the last five years, because he couldn’t stand it. He wanted to tell her that people came back to their house after a tense day, had a drink, made warm food. They turned up the thermostat, spoke to each other, called friends.” His trip to Shirley Falls is a disaster, and Bob knows he has failed yet again.
As public attention to the mosque incident escalates, others enter the story. Pam, Bob’s ex-wife, is remarried but still relies on Bob for companionship, because here’s the thing about him: “To be with Bob made people feel as if they were inside a small circle of us-ness. If Bob had known this about himself his life might have been different.” Not even Pam, with her two kids and rich new husband, is immune to this odd charm.
Abdikarim Ahmed, a Somali, offers a different perspective. He’s appalled by Zach’s thoughtless act but is also compassionate toward the boy in ways his friends are not. Strout is unsparing in her depiction of the culture clash; she never sugarcoats the tensions or how bigotry can reside in the least likely places. Even Bob, the liberal and by consensus the nicest Burgess, is guilty of uncharitable thoughts: “Bob, who believed in the magnificence of the Constitution and the rights of the people, all people, to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness … Bob thought ever so fleetingly but he thought it: Just as long as there aren’t too many of them.”
Secrets are revealed, and the Burgesses find the ground under their feet shifting — just like your perceptions of this unhappy family alter over the course of the book. Strout is too gifted a writer to settle for a pat ending, and so some questions remain for the Burgess clan. What is never in doubt is how impeccably Strout brings these flawed people to life.
Connie Ogle is the Miami Herald’s book editor.