The Burgess Boys is Elizabeth Strout’s latest book and is to be released in March. I just finished reading an advanced copy and am telling you now—go order it.
Strout is masterful at creating characters that are very real. I read this book in a day because I couldn’t put it down. I needed to see what happened to these prople, and I wanted to keep reading her skillfully crafted sentences. Both the product and the process are successful.
You can tell that Strout likes words—and is particular about the words she uses and how she places them. It’s an art, and I’m drawn to her skill set. The Burgess Boys is one of those books that I re-read single sentences multiple times, just to hear them again in my head and marvel at the “wordsmithing”.
She captures the small details that create monumental tension and dysfunction, especially within families. Family members and loved ones are stung in the banter and deceptions of the day. We feel the thorns and, with time, enjoy the roses. The words convey the conflict as well as the family bonds that keep it all together for better or worse.
We see the admirably strong bonds that exist amongst siblings, even when deception, dysfunction and enabling are strong deterrents to the relationships. This tension throughout the novel is engaging and seductive. Stout revels the cost of errors and bad judgment between couples; infidelity is just one variety of estrangement. Do people enter relationships only to get what they need? And what are the consequences of that motivation?
Many times during the course of this novel, characters have to assess whether the pain caused by “loved ones” is worth tolerating. We get examples of likeable characters who put up with unacceptable toxic behavior for years… and others who cut the cord and seek refuge elsewhere. There’s a lot more tolerating than I’m capable of, but I like how Strout shows the options and the consequences. I do find it ironic that more tolerance and latitude is shown toward blood relatives than any other group, even when it is almost fatal. Outsiders are given no leeway before judgment is called.
The author focuses not only on family, but the family in the larger sense: community. What happens when newcomers are only seen as outsiders? She plays with this theme in a variety of ways. Who gains acceptance and who is un-welcomed in a family or in a town. The immigrants from Somalia provide a means to explore prejudice, discrimination, fear and the consequences of clicking one’s emotional “delete button” before knowing a person. Likewise class-ism rears its head; the affluent characters and less affluent ones are seldom on equal or welcomed footing. There is a lack of connection and understanding that is the root of many problems these players encounter. Stout isn’t preachy, she’s an astute observer of human behavior; the reader gets to draw conclusions. It’s all very real.
There is a rhythm, momentum and chemistry to this novel that is constant and captivating. As a reader, I care about the characters and connect to many while staying equally involved with the plot and totally celebrate the writer’s style. What more could I ask for?