Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Burgess Boys

In the Reader's Guide to her novel, The Burgess Boys, Elizabeth Strout writes, "It is not 'good' or 'bad' that interests me as a writer, but the murkiness of human experience and the consistent imperfections of our lives. To present this in the form of fiction helps make our humanness more acceptable to the reader; this is my wish."

Strout's wish is brought to fulfillment brilliantly in her telling of the Burgesses' story.

I remembered how much I enjoyed Strout's earlier novel when I witnessed Frances McDormand and the wonderful ensemble cast bring Olive Kitteridge to light in HBO's production. It reminded me that I had intended to add Strout's other works to my "To Read" list and so I set off to check-out her latest offering.

In reading Strout's books I always have the feeling that I am pulling a Mrs. Drinkwater at the top of the stairs or a Bob Burgess watching his neighbors at night through their illuminated apartment windows across the street--not quite sure I should be witnessing this level of intimacy between the people before me, but quite unable to turn away. Strout manages to involve readers in the lives of these quite ordinary people (I hesitate to call them characters, as they feel like so much more!) and it seems there is something in each of them with which it is easy to identify with.

Although the Burgess family grew up in Shirley Falls, Maine--the brothers have lived for a number of years in New York City. With both parents deceased, only their sister, Susan, and her son Zach remain in the fictional Maine community. What is clear is that the trauma they all endured in childhood has impacted greatly the varied paths each has taken.

If you are the type of reader who enjoys a novel's ability to make you examine your own life--the events, people, and attitudes that have shaped your journey and continue to do so, you should read any of Strout's writing. There are no perfect lives here (although there are those within the pages who dream of perfect lives.) That's what draws me in to Strout's writing. [In other words, if you read to escape the realities of life and to get drawn into the realm of fantasy, these books are not for you.]

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