The best books are the ones you keep wanting to get back to, so that every time you sit down for five minutes you read another chapter. The Burgess Boys is just such a book. I didn’t love Olive Kitteridge as much as many other people did. I see I described it as like Fannie Flagg without the optimism. Although The Burgess Boys is not madly cheerful, it does tell a story you want to hear.
The book opens with conversations between a mother living in Maine and her daughter who, like many others, has escaped to New York. They reminisce in a gossipy way about the past in the small town of Shirley Falls, and especially about ‘the Burgess kids’. When I’d finished the book I went back and read the introduction again. I found it full of spoilers which I’d completely forgotten while actually following the plot.
Jim Burgess, the elder brother, is a famous lawyer who married money and seems to have a perfect family life. Bob has always been put down by Jim but remains an easy going, likeable guy. Susan? Well no one knows what to say about Susan, the only sibling to have stayed back in Maine. ‘Depressing’ is the word most commonly used. People remember the Burgess kids because when they were all very young, a car they were playing in ran over and killed their father. Not surprisingly, this has affected all their lives.
The brothers and sister may not like each other very much but they are clannishly loyal, so when a distress call comes from Susan, Jim and Bob feel they must help. The trouble starts with the recent arrival in Shirley Falls of Somali refugees. Quite a lot of the book is taken up with the Somalis; their lack of integration and how the townspeople feel about them. Susan’s son Zach, ‘that weird kid’ has done something (I won’t give a spoiler) to offend the Somalis. The local cops treat the incident as ‘a misdemeanour’, i.e. nothing too serious, but the story spreads until it’s national and even global news and Zach is in danger of being charged with a hate crime. The way events escalate reminded me of that little ‘thock!’ in Bonfire of the Vanities, from which so much develops. Jim thinks he can fix anything for anyone and expects to fix this, too.
Zach’s story runs for most of the book, but as it unfolds the lives of Jim and his wife Helen, Bob and his ex-wife Pam, are skillfully interwoven with the chronological narrative. All is not as it has seemed in the past and life changes for all of them. I’m pleased to report that for nice Bob, the changes are for the better. It’s a good story but what I really enjoyed about it was all the detail: people’s clothes, their apartments, what they eat, what they’re thinking. This adds to the understanding of the characters and makes the reader feel involved. So I give this book a high score and recommend it. I still don’t see why Elizabeth Strout and Marilynne Robinson are regarded as ‘literary’ writers and therefore superior to Fannie Flagg. She writes in similar detail but unpretentiously about small town America. She tells good stories and I love her books, especially Standing in the Rainbow.
The Burgess Boys is published by Simon and Schuster UK this month and I read it thanks to NetGalley.