Character development. If I had to share Elizabeth Strout’s greatest skill as an author, that would be it.
I’m always curious how authors assist the reader in getting to know their characters. Some will spend entire chapters telling you everything about a character before returning to the plot. Others will allow the reader to make his/her own assumptions based on a character’s language and choices, leaving physical traits up to the imagination.
Elizabeth Strout gives the reader just enough information about a character to build a foundation for the here and now.
However, like all humans in real life, her characters are multi-faceted, changing over time, shaped by Life’s milestones. No one is completely good or completely bad and all of them surprise you when you least expect it.
The Burgess Boys is, undoubtedly, a character-driven novel, meaning that the reader is more interested in the players than the plot.
The players are:
- Oldest brother, Jim Burgess, a famous criminal defense attorney. He is brash, arrogant, and the center of any room he occupies. He will do anything to leave his humble, Maine-based roots behind him. His mood is often volatile, his language coarse, and compassion is rarely his first instinct. His wife, Helen, dutifully plays her role as a successful man’s wife. She’s supportive, but not passive, and is the only living person who can elicit an apology from her unapologetic husband. We often see Jim through her eyes. Helen and Jim are recent empty-nesters. It’s been a challenging adjustment.
- Younger brother Bob Burgess is also an attorney. He’s divorced from Pam, with whom he still has an amiable friendship, and works for Legal Aid. Bob lives in the shadow of his older brother who, even in adulthood, uses every opportunity to chop Bob down to size. Yet, there is a subtle strength and steadiness to Bob that one admires more and more as the novel progresses. Like Jim, Bob also lives in New York City. Unlike Jim, Bob does not feel the need to deny his past.
- Susan Burgess is Bob’s twin sister. She has never left their hometown of Shirley Falls, Maine, although the town has aged her beyond her years. She trudges to work daily, only cooks food she can defrost and microwave, and lives a monotone existence. Every time the story switched to Susan, I imagined her surrounded by outdated earth-tones in a house resembling the set of Rosanne, only less cheerful.
- Zach Olson is Susan’s only child. He’s a sad, scrawny nineteen-year-old, but seems much younger. He is naive, friendless, fatherless and speaks in single syllables. His only contact with his dad, who now lives in Sweden with a girlfriend, is the occasional email. Like his mother, Zach drifts from day to day with hardly any variety from one hour to the next.
Supporting characters include Susan’s upstairs tenant, Mrs. Drinkwater, who functions as a flickering light of optimism and friendship in Susan’s dreary life, and displaced immigrant Abdikarim who is the face of the ever-growing Somali community in Shirley Falls. The story takes off when the Burgess brothers are called upon to help their nephew, who–in a moment of absolute stupidity–pranks the Somali people in their house of worship.
What makes the characters and story interesting is that, by the novel’s conclusion, no event or character ends as they begin. It is a powerful reminder that people cannot be defined by first impressions or even by choices they have cultivated for years.
Still, I am not sure how to feel about the book as a whole. As one reviewer on Goodreads wrote “is it the most ‘very OK novel’ I’ve read in a long time.” It’s a vague description, but one with which I agree. Even Strout’s masterful writing style was not enough to save this one. Most plots have a noticeable arch. This one did not. Even it’s ending felt like a literary amputation, making the reader feel as if the real concluding chapter was missing. This might support the realism Strout is attempting to achieve, but it robs the reader of that sense of satisfaction we all desire after investing in three hundred pages.