Just finished listening to ‘The Burgess Boys’. Excellent story of two brother and their sister – I guess calling the book ‘the Burgess brothers and their sister’ was too much hard work.
The book is set in New York and Maine and concerns two brothers living in New York and their sister living in Maine. The brothers are both lawyers – Jim (the elder) a successful corporate lawyer, Bob, the other operating at the other end of the scale. And their sister, Susan (Bob’s twin) lives with her son Zach in a small town, Shirley Falls, in Maine, where they all grew up.
Zach gets in trouble and his uncles ‘ride into town’ to sort out the problems. Well, first Bob arrives and then Jim, as the reinforcement. In fact Jim seeks to control the process and directs the actions to be taken by both Bob and Susan.
From early on it is apparent that we are going to learn about the siblings background, their early childhoods, their family upbringing, their rivalries and something that happened when they were quite young. We also see their adult lives, their failed or challenged marriages and how they have managed or struggled to stay in touch as their careers, relocation and their new family lives have separated them.
We have some excellent insights into Jim’s life – married to Helen (who is independently wealthy), a very successful lawyer with many of the trappings of success, but struggling with some of the compromise and required socialising with other partners in the law firm. The golf trip is nicely juxtapositioned with the breaking crisis for Zach and his mother. We also see how Jim struggles to readjust when reimmersed in Shirley Falls,.
On the face of it Jim and Helen have an excellent relationship – but there are elements of ‘Gatsby’ about some parts of their lives. There appears to be a level of boredom, lack of direction or meaning. Some of this comes across clearly in descriptions of Helen’s activities – one of the ‘ladies who do lunch’ in New York.
We also see how Bob struggles and we meet his ex-wife and some other friends. We learn more about Bob in seeing how he inter relates with Jim and Helen, his neighbours, his sister and various other characters. During the course of the Zach issue Bob meets up with some old friends in Shirley Falls and generally rebuilds his relationship with his sister. His relationship with Jim – as the younger, less successful brother, develops as Jim’s world unfolds.
Susan is the mother who is struggling to bring up Zach on her own – and experiences real self-doubt/ guilt when Zach gets in trouble. She is less worldly-wise – at least on first meeting her – than her brothers and is inclined to imagine the worst and be panicked into action.
The interaction between the two brothers and their sister is intriguing and well-developed throughout the novel by Strout.. And there are a number of surprises for the reader which will hold your attention. I found the book fascinating as an examination of relationships between siblings – Zach’s issues just provide an opportunity and a reason for more focused interaction between the three of them in later adult life. In some respects it reminds of situations we all find ourselves in when travelling to a funeral and spending longer together than planned.
As someone with a number of siblings I found the book interesting in that it stimulated some thinking/ reflection re sibling relationships – and how they may develop or be constrained in adult life, as additional people e.g. spouses, become involved in our lives, as people relocate, as careers develop differently, as children arrive. But Elizabeth Strout, the author, reminds us clearly of the importance of those initial relationships based on childhood and how these can survive many of the challenges over the years. The underlying message is blood relationships are critical and should last the test of time.
I would have little hesitation in recommending the book to friends. Good character development and interaction and plenty of material on which to reflect.