You can leave Maine, but it doesn’t leave you.
The relationships between siblings, the reliability of memory, and mid-life marital problems form Elizabeth Strout’s The Burgess Boys. The Burgess ‘Boys’ are actually middle-aged men, Jim and Bob Burgess, but there’s a sister too, Susan. Jim and Bob moved from Maine to New York and both brothers now live in Brooklyn. Susan remains in Shirley Falls, Maine, and while the brothers see each other a lot, they seldom see Susan. This may be due to geography, or a childhood trauma, but it’s also partly due to Jim and Bob’s reluctance to return to Maine. Also Susan is sour, and she’s become worse since her husband departed to Sweden, leaving her with her son, 19-year-old Zach.
Bob, the far sweeter brother, is divorced. His long-term girlfriend just dumped him, ostensibly because he’s too close to his ex, Pam, who is now remarried and also lives in New York. Jim, an extremely successful attorney is married to Helen. The three siblings are brought together in crisis mode when Zach tosses a pig’s head into a Shirley Falls Mosque. Facing prosecution, Jim and Bob become involved in the case, and by the time the book ends, everyone emerges into a new reality.
Jim has celebrity status thanks to successfully defending a popular singer on murder charges. This, however, was the pinnacle of his career, and he’s never quite hit that high note since. When the novel begins, Helen, his supportive wife deeply resents Jim’s involvement in his nephew’s case. She dislikes her “grim sister-in-law” and dislikes Maine. Underneath all these resentments and dislikes, is the unacknowledged feeling that she and Jim are drifting apart. Poor Helen–although her snobbery makes her a less sympathetic character.
Bob’s career is modest next to Jim’s but then again, 51-year-old Bob is a modest man. He is blighted by an accident which killed his father–an accident which he caused. This incident is a permanent cloud on every aspect of Bob’s life. And that isn’t helped AT ALL by the fact that Jim constantly belittles him, calling him “knucklehead,” “Slob-dog,” “cretinized bozo.” It’s all ‘supposed’ to be good fun, but it’s mean spirited especially when combined with all the other insults Jim throws Bob’s way. Then there’s Susan who loves Jim and thinks he’s the only one who can help her in the criminal case against Zach. She’s also nasty to Bob and doesn’t think he is capable doing anything correctly.
Bob is always in Jim’s shadow and asks himself:
What was this thing that Jimmy had? The intangible, compelling part of Jimmy?
Some people ooze confidence, and when Jimmy makes a confession, well two confessions, Bob’s world is rocked to its foundations. Jimmy, who has a cruel side, typically fails to grasp the emotional impact Bob feels. Jim seems to have a history of failing to understand how his actions impact others. That’s evident when he waltzes into Shirley Falls and manages to piss everyone off. There’s an influx of Somalis into Shirley Falls and they aren’t integrating well.
The novel is a touch on the sentimental side. I liked how the novel shows that siblings all have certain places carved on the family totem pole, and that while they share childhoods, they may not have quite the same recollections. Bob is scripted as the screw-up in childhood, and he grew into that role. He’s actually successful, but he still carries that figurative screw-up hat. I rather liked Susan in spite of her sour moods. We get a few scenes of Pam who is now living the life she thought she always wanted in high society New York, and yet she still craves the ever-loyal Bob’s company. Pam, a character we see in Oh, William, is a parasitologist and at one point Jim tells Bob that Pam is rather like a parasite herself:
She didn’t like her childhood, so she took yours. Then she got to New York and looked around and saw people had kids and she’d better get some too, and while she was at it she’d better get some money as well, because New York has a lot of that too.