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The Burgess Boys

July 10, 2013

The more I found out about Olive Kitteridge, the more I wanted to know about her. But The Burgess Boys, by the same author (Elizabeth Strout), is another story. I didn’t know much about either of them, and could get only mildly interested in finding out any more. I kept the novel beside my bed and dipped into it for 10-15 minutes each night until I finally finished it and could say “huh.”

The plot summary makes it sound more exciting than it really is—two brothers, one a successful Manhattan lawyer and the other a less successful one, are called home to a small town in Maine because their sister’s son has unwittingly offended the local Somalian community, and he needs legal help. Everything takes place in slow motion; the family connections are examined and put back in place carefully, as if the family members are pieces of a boat that the author intends to launch at the end of the novel.

There are wonderful little moments, though, connections between people that will make you think, as the wife of the more successful brother does, that someone else understands what your life is like—when she loses the diamond from her engagement ring, her brother-in-law observes “that’s kind of sickening. Like looking in the mirror and seeing one of your front teeth missing.”

Another of these nice moments is about time itself:
“She had never seen what she saw now: that her mother’s fits of fury had made fury acceptable, that how Susan had been spoken to became the way she spoke to others. Her mother had never said, Susan, I’m sorry. I should not have spoken to you that way. And so years later, speaking that way herself, Susan had never apologized either.
And it was too late. No one wants to believe something is too late, but it is always becoming too late, and then it is.”

There are also moments of insight, usually coming just when I had begun to get totally disgusted by how mentally slow and self-deceiving the characters are. The best one, I think, is in a conversation between Bob, the less successful brother, and his ex-wife, who is telling him about a book by a Somalian woman:

“’…the writer is very specific about how in Somalia to be a woman is pretty insane. You have a child out of wedlock and your life is over. I mean, over. You can just die in the street. No one will care. And that other stuff, good God, they take these five-year-olds, and they cut it right off… then sew it up. The girls can barely pee….I mean, you want to respect their way of life, but how can you respect that? There’s controversy in the medical community, of course, because some of these women like to be sewn up again after they have a baby and Western doctors aren’t so keen on doing that….’
‘They’re not crazy. They’re exhausted. And partly they’re exhausted by people like you reading about the most inflammatory aspects of their culture in some book club, and then getting to hate them for it, because deep down that’s what we ignorant, weenie Americans, ever since the towers went down, really want to do. Have permission to hate them.’”

Although I think there can be bad traditions in other cultures and it’s important to speak out and say that we won’t tolerate the practice of those bad traditions in this country, Bob has a good point here about how some of us talk about what we’ve learned, when we bother to learn about other cultures.

After some nice moments and the occasional insight, however, there’s always a lull when the action and even the thoughts of the characters stop. Like when we see the more successful brother, Jim, telling his brother Bob “you have always made me crazy. I’m tired of you, Bob…please go” and then we see that Bob’s reaction to this is to cancel a lunch date and “after that he wandered the hot streets blindly, his shirt soaked through with sweat, stopping sometimes to sit on a step, smoking, smoking, smoking.” It’s like one of those old movies where smoking is a way to show that someone is pensive, but you don’t get to hear their thoughts. You just watch them sit, and eventually you lose interest.

The whole novel is like Bob’s train ride in New York City:
“Everyone on the train seemed innocent and dear to him, their eyes unfocused with morning reveries that were theirs alone, perhaps words spoken to them earlier, or words they dreamed of speaking; some read newspapers, many listened through earbuds to their own soundtrack, but most stared absently as Bob did—and he was moved by the singularity and mystery of each person he saw. His own mind, had it been peered into, was filled with odd and shocking thoughts, yet he assumed that those around him—tugging on the shoulder straps of their bags, lurching forward as the train stopped in a station, murmuring Sorry for a foot stepped on, the nod of acceptance—had everyday things on their minds, but how did he know, how did he know, the train rocked forward again.”

In the end, I find that using the Burgess boys as a focal point for “singularity and mystery” is only moderately successful. Small things are made much of, and large things turn out to be much smaller than anticipated. The perspective is so unpredictable that it makes the insights seem less important than they could be.

I do like the ending, though. Jim’s wife has finally left him, and he has the wit to say to his family “in case you haven’t noticed, people get hard-hearted against the people they hurt. Because we can’t stand it. Literally. To think we did that to someone. I did that. So we think of all the reasons why it’s okay we did whatever we did.”  Jim’s family members finally have the wit to say to him that he should beg her to come back. That insight–that love is worth begging for–colors the end of the book, even a previous observation by a Somalian father that “Americans really did not understand desperation.” The novel is full of quiet desperation–a little too quiet for my taste–but perhaps it is worth making one’s way through in a contemplative season.

Is July a contemplative season for you?

6 Comments leave one →
  1. July 11, 2013 9:21 pm

    No, it’s not. And thank you for taking one for the team. Now I don’t need to read this book. (hmm should I have used my inside voice for this comment?)

    • July 12, 2013 9:10 am

      It’s probably not for you. It’s literary fiction, although I think it falls short of the mark set by her intertwined short stories.

  2. July 12, 2013 1:20 am

    Haha, I like the comment above.

    Doesn’t sound my style either. July is apparently all about the brainless YA for me. 🙂

    • July 12, 2013 9:11 am

      I think a lot of readers prefer lighter stuff in the summer. I like the occasional difficult read because I don’t feel overloaded with other intellectual goals.

  3. July 25, 2013 8:35 am

    So much to love in this review – more, I suspect, than in the book itself. I always think I like summer because of the long evenings and higher temperatures. And then I get here and find I am fed up of feeling too hot and not sleeping well. But the illusion does persist. This doesn’t really answer your question – but given that I like contemplation very much indeed, in any season, I assume the summer will be good for it.

    • July 29, 2013 1:58 pm

      Maybe it’s because I like hot weather that I think summer is good for contemplation, or maybe it’s just that if a person likes contemplation, then they’ll like any opportunity.

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