Burgess Boys (Strout)

The Burgess Boyus
Elizabeth Strout, 2013
Random House
336 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780812979510

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 sleek, 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. Her lonely teenage son, Zach, has gotten himself into a world of trouble, and Susan desperately needs their help. And so the Burgess brothers return to the landscape of their childhood, where the long-buried tensions that have shaped and shadowed their relationship begin to surface in unexpected ways that will change them forever.

With a rare combination of brilliant storytelling, exquisite prose, and remarkable insight into character, Elizabeth Strout has brought to life two deeply human protagonists whose struggles and triumphs will resonate with readers long after they turn the final page. Tender, tough-minded, loving, and deeply illuminating about the ties that bind us to family and home, The Burgess Boys is Elizabeth Strout’s newest and perhaps most astonishing work of literary art. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—January 6, 1956
Where—Portland, Maine, USA
Education—B.A., Bates College; J.D. and Certificate of  Gerontology, Syracuse University
Awards—Pulitzer Prize
Currently—lives in Brooklyn, New York, and in Maine.

Elizabeth Strout is an American writer of fiction. She was born in Portland, Maine and raised in small towns in Maine and New Hampshire. Her father was a science professor, and her mother taught high school. After graduating from Bates College, she spent a year in Oxford, England, followed by studies at law school for another year. In 1982 she graduated with honors, and received both a law degree from the Syracuse University College of Law and a Certificate of Gerontology from the Syracuse School of Social Work. That year her first story was published in New Letters magazine.

Strout moved to New York City, and continued to write stories that were published in literary magazines, as well as in Redbook and Seventeen. It took her six or seven years to write Amy and Isabelle, which when published was shortlisted for the 2000 Orange Prize and nominated for the 2000 PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction. The novel was made into a television movie starring Elisabeth Shue and produced by Oprah Winfrey's studio, Harpo Films.

She was a NEH (National Endowment for the Humanities) professor at Colgate University during the Fall Semester of 2007, where she taught creative writing at both the introductory and advanced level. She was also on the faculty of the MFA program at Queens University of Charlotte in Charlotte, North Carolina.

In 2009 Strout was honored with a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for Olive Kitteridge (2008), a collection of connected short stories about a woman and her immediate family and friends on the coast of Maine. In 2010, Italian booksellers voted Olive Kitteridge and Strout as the winner of the Premio Bancarella award in the medieval Piazza della Repubblica in Pontremoli, Italy. Her new book, The Burgess Boys, was published in 2013.

Strout is married to former Maine Attorney General James Tierney, who currently serves as the Director of the National State Attorney General Program at Columbia Law School. She divides her time between New York and Maine. (From Wikipedia.)

From a 2006 Barnes & Noble interview:

• My first job was when I was about 12, cleaning houses in the afternoons for different elderly women in town. I hated it. I would be so bored scrubbing at some kitchen tile, that my mind would finally float all over the place, to the beach, to a friend's house...all this happened in my mind as I scrubbed those tiles, so it was certainly good for my imagination. But I did hate it."

• Without a doubt my mother was an inspiration for my writing. This is true in many ways, but mostly because she is a wonderful storyteller, without even knowing it. I would listen, as a child, when some friend of hers came to visit, and they would gossip about the different people they knew. My mother had the most fascinating stories about people's families, murderers, mental illnesses, babies abandoned, and she delivered it all in a matter-of-fact way that was terribly compelling. It made me believe that there was nothing more interesting than the lives of people, their real hidden lives, and this of course can lead one down the path of becoming a fiction writer.

• Later, in college, one of my favorite things was to go into town and sit at the counter at Woolworth's (so tragic to have them gone!) and listen to people talking; the waitresses and the customers — I loved it. I still love to eavesdrop, but mostly I like the idea of being around people who are right in the middle of their lives, revealing certain details to each other — leaving the rest for me to make up.

• I love theater. I love sitting in an audience and having the actors right there, playing out what it means to be a human being. There is something about the actual relationship that is going on between the audience and the actors that I just love. I love seeing the sets and costumes, the decisions that have been made about the staging...it's a place for the eye and the ear to be fully involved. I have always loved theater."

• I also like cell phones. What I mean by that is I hear many people complain about cell phones; they can't go anywhere without hearing someone on a cell phone, etc. But I love that chance to hear half a conversation, even if the person is just saying, ‘Hi honey, I'll be home in ten minutes, do you want me to bring some milk?' And I'm also grateful to have a cell phone, just to know it's there if I need it when I'm out and about. So I'm a cell phone fan.

• I don't especially like to travel, not the way many people do. I know many people that love to go to far-off and different places, and I've never been like that. I seem to get homesick as quickly as a child. I may like being in some new place for a few days, but then I want to go home and return to my routine and my familiar corner stores. I am a real creature of habit, without a doubt.

When asked what book most influenced her life as a writer, she answered:

Perhaps the book that had the greatest influence on my career as a writer was The Journals of John Cheever. Of course many, many books had influenced me before I read that, but there was something about the honesty found in Cheever's journals that gave me courage as a writer. And his ability to turn a phrase, to describe in a breath the beauty of a rainstorm or the fog rising off the river... all this arrived in my life as a writer at a time when I seemed ready to absorb his examples of what a sentence can do when written with the integrity of emotion and felicity of language.

Book Reviews
No one should be surprised by the poignancy and emotional vigor of Elizabeth Strout's new novel. But the broad social and political range of The Burgess Boys shows just how impressively this extraordinary writer continues to develop.... As she showed in Olive Kitteridge, Strout is something of a connoisseur of emotional cruelty. But does anyone capture middle age quite as tenderly? Those latent fears—of change, of not changing, of being alone, of being stuck forever with the same person. There seems no limit to her sympathy, her ability to express, without the acrid tone of irony, our selfish, needy anxieties that only family can aggravate—and quell.
Ron Charles - Washington Post

Strout’s follow-up to her 2009 Pulitzer Prize winner Olive Kitteridge links a trio of middle-aged siblings with a group of Somali immigrants in a familiar story about isolation within families and communities.... Strout excels in constructing an intricate web of circuitous family drama, which makes for a powerful story, but the familiarity of the novel’s questions and a miraculously disentangled denouement drain the story of depth
Publishers Weekly

As in her Pulitzer Prize-winning Olive Kitteredge, Strout promises to make everyday small-town life luminous and absorbing. Brothers who have fled upstate Shirley Falls for New York City return when their sister needs help with her troubled teenage son.
Library Journal

The scenario gives Strout an opportunity to explore the culture of the Somalis who have immigrated to the state in recent years.... But this is mainly a carefully manicured study of domestic (American and household) dysfunction.... A skilled but lackluster novel that dutifully ticks off the boxes of family strife, infidelity and ripped-from-the-headlines issues.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
Use our LitLovers Book Club Resources; they can help with discussions for any book:

How to Discuss a Book (helpful discussion tips)
Generic Discussion Questions—Fiction and Nonfiction
Read-Think-Talk (a guided reading chart)

Also, consider these LitLovers talking points to begin a discussion for The Burgess Boys:

1. Talk about how Bob, who at the age of four was held accountable for his father's death. To what degree has that childhood trauma shaped his subsequent life? The family never mentions the fatal accident. Why?

2. What about the personalities and life trajectories of the three siblings—and the differences between them? Start with Jim and Bob; then Bob and his twin sister, Susan. How do they feel about one another—and how do they treat each other? How do those relationships change by the end of the story?

3. What do you think of Helen? Are you sympathetic to her?

4. This novel is very much about place and sense of home. How do the physical manifestations of the sibling's homes, their houses or apartments, reflect their inner lives? How do the brothers view their Maine hometown...and how does Susan view New York City? How do the Somalis view Maine and their new (perhaps temporary) home in Shirley Falls.

5. How has Shirley Falls changed over the years since the three siblings grew up and the two brothers moved away? Is Shirley Falls typical of small-town America?

6. What prompts Zach to throw the pig's head into the mosque? He later explains his action as a "dumb joke." What do you think of Zach? Does a 19-year-old boy deserve to be arrested and charged with a Federal hate crime?

7. Discuss the relations between the locals and the Somali Muslim population living in Shirley Falls. How do the two populations view one another? What humiliations do the Muslims undergo at the hands of the native Mainers?

8. Zach finds an unlikely ally in Abdikarim. What is it about Zach that encourages the older man to feel sympathy for him? What are Abdikarim's own demons? Talk about the differences in the two worlds of Abkikarim: the colorful market of the Al Barakaat in Somalia and the drab greyness of the small town in Maine.

10. Talk about the way in which the prevailing political pressures shape legal strategy.

11. Why is Bob so hesitant to accept Jim's view of the accident?

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution. Thanks.)

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