The Burgess Boys

This book was fantastic. Tightly written, taut characterization, carefully intertwined themes.  Who are the Burgess boys?  There’s three of them — aren’t there always? — there’s Jim, the larger-than-life defense attorney, beloved by all, with his perfect family, perfect job, perfect life — the one who escaped from a small Maine town to make it big in the city of New York.  There’s Bob, younger by four years, and forever following in his brother’s footsteps.  He’s an attorney, too, but for Legal Aid, working in the appellate shop because he can’t handle the pressures of the courtroom. He’s divorced, living in a shitty apartment, and though he’s left Maine, there’s some part of him that still belongs back there. And finally there’s Zach, who isn’t a Burgess boy at all, but is the son of Jim and Bob’s sister, and pulls everyone back to Shirley Falls, Maine. Zach, who is more shy than even Bob, is intricately tied in to the ebb and flow of a town finally required to accept change from the outside world.


The back cover reads: Haunted by the freak accident that killed their father when they were children, Jim and Bob Burgess escaped from their Maine hometown of Shirley Falls for New York City as soon as they possibly could. Jim, a successful corporate lawyer, has belittled his bighearted brother their whole lives, and Bob, a Legal Aid attorney who idolizes Jim, has always taken it in stride. But their long-standing dynamic is upended when their sister, Susan — the Burgess sibling who stayed behind — urgently calls them home, where the long-buried tensions that have shaped and shadowed the brothers’ relationship begin to surface in unexpected ways that will change them forever.

The characterization in the book is bracketed by these three men: by Zach who begins the novel as a ghost to Jim the hero, with Bob floating somewhere in between.  Similarly, the novel is bookended with crimes: in the distant past, when Jim and Bob were boys, there was an accident in a car that resulted in the death of their father.  The focus of the novel is the resolution of a hate crime committed by Zach, though potentially without any hate — and the novel ends with a crime committed by Jim.  There’s a terseness to this plot, mirrored by the terse writing.  Shifting perspectives give us the opportunity to view things from Bob’s point of view, from Susan, their sister, and from a variety of other small characters throughout.  The one character that we never get to view from the inside is Jim — and how can we, when he is such a big figure in everyone else’s estimation, and secretly such a small one himself?

The book has a number of themes, just as intricately interwoven as everything else.  There’s the question of the outsider:  Somalians have recently moved to Shirley Falls, and their otherness causes near panic within the sleepy small village.  But there are other elements of outsiders: there’s Jim, who is always an outsider to the highly pedigreed in New York, and Bob who is an outsider to his own family; Zach who doesn’t fit in anywhere, and an Episcopalian minister serving a population that doesn’t follow her faith.  There’s that theme of home;  what is home to the Somalians, to Jim and Bob and Susan, and even to Zach — what is home to anyone?

What hit home the most for me, however, was family — and granted, this is the theme that is hit upon the most frequently (and, in all honesty, sometimes a little heavy-handedly).  There’s an interesting little throw-away conversation, though, stuck midway through the book.  Jim and Bob are driving along, musing about why it was that their mother loved them both unconditionally, but always was so hard on their sister.  Jim says “It had something to do with Susie being a girl. She got screwed because she was a girl.” Bob protests that, and Jim responds with “it’s different in our generation.  Our generation, we’re like firends to our kids.  Maybe it’s sick, maybe it isn’t, who knows.  But it’s like we decided, well, we’re not doing that to our kids, we’re going to be friends with our kids. Honestly, Helen’s great. But Mom and Susan, that’s what happened back then. Next exit we’ll eat.”

It made me stop and think for a minute — think about the relationship between my mother and grandmother, and then between myself and my mother.  It’s always impressive when a book manages to do that, and the Burgess Boys did — it pulled me into an immersive world, and then pushed me out and forced me to relate to my own life.  My grandmother always heaped love upon her sons — they could do no wrong.  My mother, on the other hand, could never do anything right.  Even today, when Mom suggests that Grandma try using email she scoffs, hems and haws, but then an uncle shows up with an ipad and she’s ready to go.  Then there are my times spent with my own mother — cups of coffee at the beach, eating out at restaurants, cleaning up around the house.  She loves my brothers, there’s no doubt about that, but there’s also something so unique about the bond between a mother and a daughter.

And then I wonder — is that universal?  It can’t be, and yet. And yet there it is.  And what else is universal in here — the immigrant who worries that his children are becoming too Americanized and are losing their culture — but what to do, when the other option is to return to a land lacking in opportunity and hope?  There’s the mother who is terrified that her son will be torn apart by a harsh world, and then has to let him travel across the sea to a father she hasn’t spoken to in years.  There’s the mother who has done everything right, yet is still left with an empty home, the woman who wanted a family so much that she married a man who wasn’t right to fit into his family, and then divorced him when they weren’t able to start a family together.  There’s a mother who has to have known which of her children accidently killed his father, yet keeps the secret all of her life.

Truly, it’s a great book.  This review is all over the place, which is really a disservice to a book that minces no words, and takes no unnecessary detours.  There are no colorful characters thrown in for comic relief, no expositing tertiary characters who arrive merely to provide background.  It’s a stark novel, and a focused one.  Give it a shot — you won’t be disappointed.

About splashfromabove

I believe firmly that through reflection, we gain in appreciation. My blog is all about taking a step back from what I read, view, or discover, and looking at it slightly askance.
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