Friday, September 12, 2014

The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout (Pulitzer Prize winner for Olive Kitteredge)

This is definitely not a book I would normally pick up (especially since it's by a pulitzer prize-winning author!), unless it was highly recommended to me by somebody I usually agree with, or it was going to be a book club selection (bingo).  I was excited to get back to the Los Gatos Library Book Club on the 3rd Tuesday night of the month.  You've heard me say how much I enjoy it, and how I look forward to it.  Melissa Maglio does a great job. So, I got this month's selection (used at Recycle), and started to read it in preparation for the book club meeting on the 16th.  Just when I got to page 120 (out of 320), I found out that I can't make the meeting.  Now what do I do?  Do I dump it or keep going, just in case my conflicting event goes away?  I decided to keep going.  And now I'm done.  This is an interesting one to review.  Let's start with Goodreads.

Haunted by the freak accident that killed their father when they were children, Jim and Bob Burgess escaped from their Maine hometown of Shirley Falls for New York City as soon as they possibly could. Jim, a sleek, successful corporate lawyer, has belittled his bighearted brother their whole lives, and Bob, a Legal Aid attorney who idolizes Jim, has always taken it in stride. But their long-standing dynamic is upended when their sister, Susan—the Burgess sibling who stayed behind—urgently calls them home. Her lonely teenage son, Zach, has gotten himself into a world of trouble, and Susan desperately needs their help. And so the Burgess brothers return to the landscape of their childhood, where the long-buried tensions that have shaped and shadowed their relationship begin to surface in unexpected ways that will change them forever.

Where do I begin?  I'll start by saying it's very well-written.  Then I'll continue by saying I got a little chill on page 312 and had a small emotional reaction on page 318.  That's it.  It reminded me of Karen Joy Fowler's We Are Completely Beside Myself.  Very well-written, but I didn't really connect with the characters.  And my 1 slightly teary response 2 pages from the end didn't even really relate to the family.  Having said all of that (blah, blah, blah, my usual), I will say that I can see why so many people liked it.  Sports fans, sometimes it's just me.

And although I didn't relate that much to the characters, there were still some parts of the book that I was able to tie into real-life experiences.  One takes place in Central Park. Bob talks about a woman who "every weekend sprayed herself gold and, wearing a leotard, tights, and toe shoes, stood on a box, struck a pose and didn't move, while tourists took pictures and kids stared and reached for the hands of their parents."  If you go to the Campbell Farmer's Market on Sunday mornings, you will often find a bronzed baseball player from head to toe, replete with uniform, cleats, and bat, standing motionless on a box.  Every now and then, he will lithely move and show some baseball stances.  It's very cool to watch.

A 2nd talks about Jim and Helen's son going to the University of Arizona.  That's where our oldest, Josh, went many years ago (he's 38 now).  And, finally, when Bob lives in Brooklyn, he talks about Prospect Park.  When we visited our daughter Lauren, and her husband Joe, back in July, Lauren and Joni took a walk to Prospect Park.  It's always fun to be able to relate to specific situations and places in a book, especially when they take place in a different part of the country.

To show you how wide a range of opinions there are about this book, Amazon has this distribution of 5- star to 1-star ratings, with an average of 3.8 (Goodreads has an average of 3.51):

5 - 481
4 - 402
3 - 279
2 - 127
1 - 76

So I'm going to say that this might be just the kind of book that you will like.  I mean, after all, 65% of the 1365 ratings gave it a 5 or 4.  I, on the other hand, probably came into the read with a negative attitude because I knew that the author is a pulitzer prize winner.  I know how surprised you are that I am capable of such childish behavior! 


  1. A lot of time when I read a prize winner, I end up not really "getting" the book but I'd still like to read this one.

  2. As always, I will be interested in your take/review.