Elizabeth Strout’s The Burgess Boys occurs in Maine and post-9/11 New York City. Covering such a wide variety of topics like the Islamic faith, hate crimes, adultery, divorce, empty nest syndrome, and the messiness of being an adult, the story follows Jim, Bob and Susan Burgess as they come together for the first time in years to defend Susan’s son from a stupid but serious prank. The family dynamic is painful to observe, as they harbor years of ill-will and resentment towards each other and their shared family trauma. The reconnection forces them to reevaluate their lives, and the consequences of such internal contemplation are surprising and wide-spread.
Contemptible characters are necessary within any story, and it is possible to enjoy a story about such characters. Unfortunately, with The Burgess Boys, it is unclear whether Ms. Strout means for her characters to be so unenjoyable. Unenjoyable they are too as they each focus on their own biased, self-centered lifestyle. The tragic accident that took the life of their father explains some of their attitude, just as their fractious relationships with each other are nothing more than sibling rivalry. However, there is something off about each of them that makes it difficult for a reader to feeling anything but disgust at their general ill temper and superior attitudes. Jim is particularly prickly and arrogant towards everything and everybody, making it all too easy for a reader to feel satisfaction at any hardship he faces. Confusion remains as to whether Ms. Strout intends for these types of reader reactions, but the fact remains that it is difficult to like the Burgess siblings, making it equally tough to enjoy this character-driven novel.
It is always pleasurable to listen to Cassandra Campbell as she narrates a story, and with The Burgess Boys, it is no different. In fact, it is a testament to her skill that she makes this mediocre novel more enjoyable. While she is not able to overcome the deficiencies of the characters, her performance does add an air of sympathy to them, something absent from the one-dimensional characters. In essence, Ms. Campbell does as much as she can to increase a reader’s interest and generate some sympathy for characters which are faintly disgusting in their selfishness. One’s enjoyment, or lack thereof, of the novel has nothing to do with Ms. Campbell’s excellent pacing, voice utilization, and performance, as hers is an example of a narrator improving an ordinary story.
Unfortunately, The Burgess Boys fails to impress with its story of family disharmony and personal growth. The siblings’ relationships, while they do change and improve, are just so disturbing in the beginning that it is difficult to sympathize with any of the issues they face. While Bob is the most sympathetic of the three, even his weakness or inability to stand up for himself against his overbearing and hyper-critical brother and sister is unsettling and difficult to stomach. Readers who can overcome these disquieting characters will find a pleasant enough story about complicated family relationships, but others will just find themselves wondering why they should care about such an overly negative family.