Remember Wuthering Heights and Ethan Fromme. Their settings are both cold winter scenes and begin with an outsider trying to put the pieces together, to know why Heathcliff is cold and crazed and why Ethan walks as if he is dragged down by a ball and chain.To know the unknowable. Well, this is how The Burgess Boys begins. Very slow, gossipy and foreboding. Again, we, the reader, are in for a story, a story about a family, a family of siblings, parents, in laws, marriages and notoriety.
Strout, the author, takes her time exposing the Burgess family and all their warts. If the reader is introspective and is willing to examine her/his own family, she/he will probably identify with the blemishes and scars of this family.
Jim Burgess, the sneering star, out shines his siblings. The twin siblings are embattled and entwined. Bob has a puppy dog demeanor and Susan the scowl of a deserted wife. Susan's son, Zachary, a solitary disenfranchised young man, brings the problem of the integration of the Somalis in the US, detachment and the stretched relationships of the siblings to the forefront. We learn that the deceased matriarch, Mary, was both nurturing and starving her children. The Burgess kids, now middle age, and still rough housing, picking at each others' sores, and trying to be independent are very connected because of the tragic death of their father.
The Burgess boys reconnect with sour Susan to help young Zachary who has affronted the Somalis in their mosque. The Somalis want to be free from the strife of their country, but don't find Americans welcoming. The Somalis don't want to be melted in and lose their identity. Zachary's prank could ruin his life and does shine a light on the intolerance of the residents of Shirley Falls.
At times these Maine born WASPs are contrasted with the newly relocated Somali refuges. The Somalis revitalize the waning mill town and scare the New England stalwarts. This novel lets you right into the cold ramshackle houses in Shirley Falls, the warm colorful robes of the Somalis and even into exquisitely decorated Brooklyn town houses and stark Manhattan skyscrapers. Each dwelling, houses and constrains, provides shelter and produces discord.
I was very impressed, just about swept away, with this Modern Family which reveals broken hearts and broken psyches and familial salves which sooth the traumas of their lives.