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Review: Strout's new novel a Maine family saga

Published on NewsOK Modified: March 25, 2013 at 1:00 pm •  Published: March 25, 2013
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"The Burgess Boys" (Random House), by Elizabeth Strout

Jim and Bob Burgess, the brothers who are the title characters of Elizabeth Strout's new novel, "The Burgess Boys," grew up fatherless in a small Maine town after an accident in the family car when they were young.

They were smart, though, and became lawyers in New York City. Now Jim, at 55, is a high-powered corporate attorney who once gained national media attention. Bob, at 51, is a legal aid lawyer with a more modest sense of himself. As the novel unfolds, they are drawn back to their hometown, revisiting old scars while struggling with a new shock to the family psyche.

This is Strout's first book since her 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "Olive Kitteridge," and her extraordinary narrative gifts are evident again.

"Olive Kitteridge" is built on the scaffolding of separate short stories that, to lesser or greater degrees, involve the title character, a teacher in a coastal Maine town. "The Burgess Boys" follows a more traditional, more sweeping novelistic track, with the marital discord and conflicted feelings of the Burgess brothers set around their attempts to help a young nephew avoid jail.

Like Olive, who can be stern and not necessarily likable, the Burgess brothers are not depicted in a wholly agreeable light but become unforgettably alive to the reader. They have their foibles from the start: Bob, who is divorced and a bit sloppy, drinks and worries too much; Jim, married to a discontented heiress, is self-absorbed and belittles Bob, whom he calls "slob-dog."

Their sister, Bob's twin Susan, also divorced, lives in a cold, quiet house in Maine with her friendless teenage son, Zach — the nephew who lands in serious legal trouble, even facing a possible hate crime charge, after throwing a frozen pig's head into the mosque of Somali immigrants.

The cultural chasm between white Maine locals and dark-skinned Muslims, along with efforts by both sides to bridge the distance, is a developing element throughout the book. But the distance between Bob and Jim — painfully wide at times, lovingly close as well and turning on "a terrible secret" from childhood — gives the novel a level of intrigue and human depth with lasting impact.

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