The Burgess Boys

The Burgess Boys

A Novel

Book - 2013 | 1st ed
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The Washington Post * NPR * Good Housekeeping

Elizabeth Strout "animates the ordinary with an astonishing force," wrote The New Yorker on the publication of her Pulitzer Prize-winning Olive Kitteridge . The San Francisco Chronicle praised Strout's "magnificent gift for humanizing characters." Now the acclaimed author returns with a stunning novel as powerful and moving as any work in contemporary literature.
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.

Praise for The Burgess Boys

"What truly makes Strout exceptional . . . is the perfect balance she achieves between the tides of story and depths of feeling." -- Chicago Tribune

"Strout's prose propels the story forward with moments of startlingly poetic clarity." -- The New Yorker
"Elizabeth Strout's first two books, Abide with Me and Amy and Isabelle, were highly thought of, and her third, Olive Kitteridge, won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction. But The Burgess Boys, her most recent novel, is her best yet." -- The Boston Globe
"A portrait of an American community in turmoil that's as ambitious as Philip Roth's American Pastoral but more intimate in tone." -- Time
"[Strout's] extraordinary narrative gifts are evident again. . . . At times [ The Burgess Boys is] almost effortlessly fluid, with superbly rendered dialogue, sudden and unexpected bolts of humor and . . . startling riffs of gripping emotion." --Associated Press
"[Strout] is at her masterful best when conjuring the two Burgess boys. . . . Scenes between them ring so true." -- San Francisco Chronicle
"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." -- The Washington Post
Publisher: New York : Random House, c2013
Edition: 1st ed
ISBN: 9781400067688
Branch Call Number: FIC STR
Characteristics: 320 p. ; 25 cm


From the critics

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Jul 29, 2020

I’m in the middle of reading everything Elizabeth Strout wrote, and I can’t get enough. Her writing hits me exactly where I need to go. There’s a beauty and luxury to her words and sentences and the way her plots move is graceful and elegant. Her characters aren’t typical, obviously, and they make me think about them (and who I am, what I’d do in a situation like that, how I can be a better person in circumstances out of my control) for days after.

That said, I almost didn’t continue reading this one. I hated the Somali situation with the boy/pig’s head/mosque. I was so upset I didn’t want to continue. But I thought I’d just read a page or two, just another page or two, and before I knew it I was done. Too soon! The characters drew me in and wouldn’t let me go. I don’t like male characters - we’ve had to read them our whole lives and I’m just plain tired of trying to fit myself into a male persona. There were enough female characters and enough interactions with females, enough damaged egos to keep me interested. Some writers do that, don’t they? They suck you in and grab a hold of you and stay with you for a long time.

Even this one, with its nasty plot, my least favorite, was still one of my top novels of the year.

ontherideau Oct 21, 2019

A slow tale of a privileged American family. I was disappointed the Somali element was not further developed.

Sep 28, 2019

Couldn't stop listening to it. Characters evolve, time goes by, big events occur and day to day events as well. There are multiple backstories and a family history which has a strong hold on the characters and yet - well you just need to listen to it or read it. Enjoyed every minute of it.

Jan 03, 2019

Elizabeth Strout is able to go into the very basic, rawest part of a person to display it with elegance and compassion. She has done this in 'The Burgess Boys' although it has a firmer plot than her other books which detracts from this baring of our souls, but not much. In 'My Name is Lucy Barton' she also has a plot going but it's looser, flipping back and forth to Lucy's time in the hospital when her mother visits her. In 'Olive Kitteridge' and 'Anything is Possible' she uses linked short stories to create her portraits of people and communities that also hang together in a somewhat plot-like manner, but since they are short stories they are more loosely connected and I think that this makes room for an intimacy with individual characters that a tighter plot forgoes. All of these books are beautifully written and remarkable.

Mar 02, 2018

The 'Burgess Boys' are both lawyers: Jim a hot-shot defence lawyer and Bob, an easy-going, rather aimless legal-aid lawyer, both living in New York. They are called home by their sister Susan, who needs their legal help after her rather gormless son Zach throws a pigs-head into a mosque, triggering outrage over the hate crime. The family had grown up in the small town of Shirley Falls, Maine but the Burgess Boys had both escaped as soon as they could, leaving Susan a rather embittered, passive single mother after her marriage had broken up. As the title suggests, the family was about The Boys, not her. Shirley Falls had received a large number of Somali immigrants, which had caused tension in the town, which was whipped up further by Zach's action.

Beside the pig's head, this is a story of adult siblings who have drifted apart after their parents died. Their father had died while they were young, as a result of a car accident for which Bob felt responsible, and there is a lot of unspoken business between them.

I've read quite a bit of Elizabeth Strout in recent years, and I'm starting to wonder if I've read too much, because my satisfaction seems to decrease with every book after the brilliant Olive Kitteridge, which I loved. There was too much time spent inside the heads of these rather unattractive people, and the Unitarian minister was so saccharine that I felt ill (AND I'm a Unitarian myself!) The significance of the disparity between New York and Maine tended to pass me by, and it felt as if there were just too many issues bubbling away in the pot here.

So, along with writers like Ann Tyler and Sue Miller, whom I've enjoyed a great deal in their early books but then felt jaded towards, I think I need a bit of a rest from Elizabeth Strout. I'll come back to her later.

ArapahoeAnnaL Dec 14, 2017

Interesting, flawed characters. I love the way the story plays out among the three siblings and their families.

Dec 10, 2016

The Burgess Boys was supposed to be about how a teenage boy commits a hate crime against (called a prank) the Somalis living in his town and it affects the community and his family. I thought, “Oh, this could be so interesting! What would happen if someone I love committed a hate crime? How would I react? Hopefully I’ll learn more about the Somali culture through this book too.” What it was instead was how these white affluent characters tried to wiggle out of blame for this kid’s crime. One lawyer had to give a hollow apology to the townspeople and then made a hasty departure and worried over the fact that his reputation had been ruined. His brother moaned all book about what his role had been in their father’s death as a kid and how he’d been in his brother’s shadow his whole life and that he wasn’t as successful of a lawyer. Really? Poor guy. Ugh. And then the Somalis in the book are given very little actual time. In this 300+ page book, I’d guess maybe 10 percent of it had anything to do with the Somalis. Some of the townspeople would say demeaning things about the refugees and the author did little to counter those comments. I said more than once out loud, “Is this book racist?” It felt racist. It cared more about the two white, affluent lawyers and their lame personal crises and their sister and her kid (who, by the way, gets sent to Europe to live with his rich dad and finds confidence and happiness, woo-freaking-hoo, lucky kid) than the Somalis in the town who remained uncomfortable and scared. One Somali man seemed to try to find a connection to the people of the town, but it felt so much like an afterthought. I really felt like Strout missed a major opportunity here to discuss cultural relations and to show how a community could open its arms and accept a group of people who are seeking asylum. But nope.

Sep 26, 2016

I enjoyed this book for the character development, the timely subject matter, and the movement of the story. I have read Elizabeth Strout before and I do think her character development is one of her strong suits. I could picture the three siblings as though I was watching a movie, seeing their movements and expressions through her descriptions. The story also had some small surprise developments along the way which kept you interested as well.

Jul 16, 2016

This is a story of three siblings, each burdened by guilt in some way. The presence of a Somali community in small town Maine is interesting, but they are remain superficial characters, as seen by the people in the town. This is a liberal perspective on middle class life. The quality of the writing masks the commonplaceness of the narrative.

sandy165 Jul 18, 2015


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sharonb122 Apr 06, 2013

p. 311: Bob to Jim: "You have family. You have a wife who hates you. Kids who are furious with you. A brother and sister who make you insane. And a nephew who used to be kind of a drip but apparently is not so much of a drip now. That's called family."

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