This is the third book I’ve read by Elizabeth Strout, and it confirms her amazing talent for creating realistic, complex characters, vividly drawn with flaws either endearing or infuriating. The Burgess Boys is more sprawling and more melodramatic than Olive Kitteridge or Amy and Isabelle, but its characterizations and depictions of family relationships are just as trenchant and profound.
The Burgess Boys should really be titled The Burgess Siblings, as it concerns two brothers and a sister from a blue-collar background, and their often hurtful interactions. The eldest, Jim, is the family success story, as an Ivy Leaguer and a renowned criminal defense attorney. Bob and Susan are twins, and are the family’s designated losers. Bob is a lawyer like Jim, but he works as a lowly public defender and is Jim’s constant verbal punching bag. Susan is challenged by her apparently slow-witted son, Zach, especially after he commits an adolescent stunt and is accused of a hate crime.
All of the characters are well-drawn and even as they exasperate us, we want to try to understand them. I imagine that most readers, like me, will root for loser Bob, called “slob-dog” by Jim, who has very specific reasons for walking through life with low self-esteem.
Zach’s legal troubles were the weak point of the book for me, because I found the storyline unrealistic – amusingly, I found out it was based on a very real incident, so what do I know?