The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout

The Burgess Boys is the SBC February 2016 selection. Next month’s selection is Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love. Visit our Goodreads group to join the conversation!


 

The Burgess Boys
The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout

It was the delicate flow of the writing that carried me through this book, not the subject matter. I’m just sick of hearing about New York City and Baby Boomers whining about how things didn’t work out the way they’d planned and how surprised they are to be growing old. I have trouble caring about people who willfully avoid self-reflection, in spite of all of the hours they spend on therapists’ couches. I have trouble feeling sorry for people who’ve leveraged their privilege to engineer their lives just as they want them, and when (or if) they finally realize that they’re vacuous people living meaningless lives, they sabotage themselves, giving themselves yet another reason to repeat the “woe is me” mantra.

That’s not to say that I’m not just as ridiculous and self-indulgent and whiny and unpleasant. But at least I’m self-reflective enough to recognize this and to know from the start that life isn’t going to have any more meaning than we assign to it, and even then we die and disappear from the Earth. Life owes me nothing, which is something the main characters of The Burgess Boys seem not to grasp.

At the center of the novel are issues of race and immigration and the ambivalence and uncertainty felt by both the Somali immigrants and the long-time residents of the Maine town where they’ve settled, but to the main characters, they themselves are the center of the story. It’s completely realistic because we’re all the stars of our own lives and no matter how much we try to connect with the struggles of others, we’re always going to feel our own personal struggles more acutely, but this reflection of reality just depresses me right now.

Of course this isn’t Elizabeth Strout’s fault. She just wrote a beautiful book that puts the spotlight on unpleasant people while the good people—Margaret Estaver and Abdikarim, mostly—are stuck in the shadows. But of course, because they’re good people, they don’t mind not being in the spotlight.

Sure, by the end the main characters seem to be on the verge of learning something important and becoming decent people, but I dislike them so much, I find it difficult even to cheer for their maybe-success. Maybe I was in a bad mood when I read this book, or maybe it’s just the Gen-Xer in me who can’t quite appreciate this one. This novel hardens my heart, and I don’t want to have a hard heart.

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