How do you build empathy for the characters in your book? Make them suffer. That’s an old trick of the trade, and Elizabeth Strout, the Pulitzer-winning author of Olive Kitteridge, uses it brilliantly in The Burgess Boys. In the prologue, we learn that bighearted Bob Burgess accidentally killed his father when he was little, and the kids on the playground taunted him because he saw a doctor “for mentals.” From that point on, it’s easy to feel deeply for Bob: He seems like someone you know in real life.
Growing up without their father, his siblings are haunted by the accident. His brother, Jim, struggles with anger-management issues long after he moves away from their home in Shirley Falls, Maine, to New York City to become a renowned lawyer. And Bob’s twin sister, Susan — who was never really liked by anyone, not even her mother — is left behind in Maine to raise a boy with psychological problems of his own. When Susan’s son, Zachary, is charged with a hate crime for throwing a pig’s head into a Somali mosque, Bob and Jim return to Shirley Falls for the trial, and all three siblings must confront the parts they play in this family: Bob the sad sack, Jim the hero, Susan the invisible girl. If we take on certain roles when we’re young, Strout asks, are we doomed to play them forever?
Strout conveys what it feels like to be an outsider very well, whether she’s delving into the quiet inner lives of Somalis in Shirley Falls or showing how the Burgess kids got so alienated from one another. But the details are so keenly observed, you can connect with the characters despite their apparent isolation. At one point, Bob takes a walk and looks into his neighbors’ windows, believing each light is telling him, You are never alone. ”He was one of them,” Strout writes. And by the end of this gracefully written novel, you’ll be one of them too. A
”Her mother had never said, Susan, I’m sorry…. And it was too late. No one wants to believe something is too late, but it is always becoming too late, and then it is.”