The Burgess Boys is the story of two brothers; Jim, the favored older brother, and Bob, fraternal twin of Susan. Mom always liked Jim best, and even in adulthood he takes every opportunity to deride his younger brother, referring to him as “slob dog” and belittling everything from Bob’s apartment to his work as a legal aid attorney. When Susan’s son, Zach, is charged with a hate crime, she calls Jim—a successful New York attorney with a big celebrity case on his resume. But Jim and his wife have vacation plans, so it’s Bob who reluctantly returns to his home town of Shirley Falls to sort things out.
Bob is the most sympathetic of the siblings, even if he seems a little hapless. Because of a childhood tragedy, he accepts Jim’s criticisms as his due. He smokes and drinks a little too much. But as he becomes more involved in Zach’s life and legal problems, the more of his goodness he reveals to readers and the more he wakes up to who he really is.
Strout’s characters are always memorable—she won a Pulitzer for her last book about a frumpy New Englander named Olive Kitteridge—and the characters in this book are equally compelling. Readers can empathize with Susan, Zach, Bob, and other supporting characters. Even the despicable Jim is compelling in his own awful way.
Based on a 2006 event in which a man tossed a frozen pig’s head into a mosque in Maine, allegedly as a prank, Strout’s book has an important message about acceptance and forgiveness. (If you think this incident sounds too bizarre to be real, just Google “pig’s head mosque.” It’s real, and it wasn’t an isolated incident.) Family and community work best when people stop seeing themselves at the center of the universe.