The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout

burgessThe Burgess Boys are a pair of New York attorneys originally from Maine.  Elder brother Jim is a famous corporate defense lawyer living in Brooklyn’s fashionable Park Slope neighborhood with his wife, Helen, who is devoted to her husband and suffering an extreme case of empty-next syndrome. Jim has a sharp mind and an equally sharp tongue.  Brother Bob works as an appeals reviewer for legal aid. He’s divorced, childless, generally unattached, living in a cramped, shabby flat in a far-less-glamorous neighborhood than his brother’s. Humbler and kinder than his brother, but also sort of a lost soul, Bob worships Jim.  There is also Susan Olson, Bob’s twin, who, quickly abandoned by her husband, still lives  in the Burgesses’ hometown of Shirley Falls, with her teenage son, Zach.

Fictional Shirley Falls (like real-life Lewiston, Maine) has become home to an ever-growing Somali community—men, women, and children who have fled genocide in their homeland.  Mostly Muslim, the immigrants are far more complex than their superficial homogeneity suggests to their Maine neighbors.  Drowning in what appears to them a bizarre and decadent cultural soup and crippled by a limited knowledge of English, the Somalis are strangers in a very strange land.

One Friday evening, Zack—completely ignorant of the potential implications—tosses a frozen pig’s head into the local mosque during prayers.  What Zack sees as a stupid prank is seen by many others as a hate crime, and it triggers legal repercussions, well-intentioned (but generally misguided) attempts to soothe the affronted community, and the Burgess Boys’ return to Shirley Falls to rescue Zach from a likely prison term.

Strout writes natural and often funny dialogue, as well as unfussy, precise descriptions.  (She describes Susan’s elderly tenant, Mrs. Drinkwater, as “thin as kindling.”) She also writes with heartbreaking compassion, offering glimpses into the souls of even unlikable characters (as you know, if you read Olive Kittridge).  And these loving, knowing glimpses allow us to recognize the damaged humanity in her characters, awaking our own compassion.  No one in The Burgess Boys is really who he or she first appears to be, not so much because people lie (although they do, of course), but because they are so complicated, so layered, so often afraid—so human.


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