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Originally published Sunday, April 7, 2013 at 5:31 AM

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‘The Burgess Boys’: old wounds, new conflicts, in a small Maine town

Elizabeth Strout’s new novel, “The Burgess Boys,” tells the story of two brothers who confront old hurts from their small-town Maine upbringing. Strout reads April 19 at the Seattle Public Library.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Elizabeth Strout

The author of “The Burgess Boys” will appear at 7 p.m. April 19 in the Microsoft auditorium of the Seattle Public Library, 1000 Fourth Ave., Seattle; free (206-386-4636 or

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‘The Burgess Boys’

by Elizabeth Strout

Random House, 336 pp., $26

First, let it be said, “The Burgess Boys” is no “Olive Kitteridge.” The latter, Elizabeth Strout’s novel revolving around the flinty math teacher of the same name, won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize and the hearts of untold readers by creating a remarkable pastiche of the residents of a fictional Maine community.

Although “The Burgess Boys” doesn’t reach that standard, it ultimately accomplishes what Strout’s novels are intended to do: hitting us with an a-ha moment in which Strout’s reading of human feeling broadens our own.

Built on a well-worn model — think Cain and Abel, or the parable of the prodigal son — “The Burgess Boys” focuses on brotherly love or, more precisely, the lack of it. Its central characters are two grown men, both lawyers, whose relationship has never matured beyond the “bite me” stage of adolescent fury.

The older, Jim, a Harvard grad and high-paid corporate attorney, comes off as a self-loathing bully. He perpetually addresses the younger, Bob, as “slob-dog” — in this case a demeaning, not affectionate, term. The rest of the family, including Bob, accepts this as Jim being Jim, their golden boy. Even Bob, lap dog if not slob-dog, buys into his brother’s superiority. Bob has spent his life bearing the responsibility — if a 4-year-old can be held responsible — for the accident that killed their father.

Both Jim and Bob live and work in New York City. But they are called back home to Shirley Falls, Maine, after their sister’s son, Zach, rolls a pig’s head into the local mosque. It’s hard to tell which is worse — the media’s glare or the court’s capriciousness — but the combination turns what could be seen as a stupid prank into a hate crime.

The Burgess clan is pushed into crisis mode. As often happens, this is where a deeper truth, if truth is ever possible in that emotional thicket we call “family,” begins to emerge.

This is also where “The Burgess Boys” draws its strength, and not surprisingly. As revealed not only in “Olive Kitteridge” but also in her first two novels, “Amy and Isabelle” and “Abide with Me,” Strout is a fracking expert: She excels at penetrating the granite surface of New England reserve to expose its beating heart.

The problem with the latest novel is that she waters down her impact by probing new territory — both the tentative Muslim immigrant presence in the Burgesses’ hometown and the shallow professional class that populates Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn.

Jim’s wife, Helen, and Bob’s former wife, Pam, come off as materialistic and naive, startled to discover that rape and pillage are taking place in parts of far-off Africa. Maybe they were too busy getting their nails done to read a newspaper.

Meanwhile, Abdikarim Ahmed, a Somalian who has come to Shirley Falls, is a sympathetic character but hardly a fully developed one. Rather, he seems a plot device for bridging the gap between his community and the lost soul Zach.

Neither of these side trips feels compelling. Rather, the strange bond between the Burgess boys is the emotional guts of the book. Stuck in a relationship that seems doomed to end where it started, they face a new family trauma and redefine the old.

Ellen Emry Heltzel is a Portland writer and book critic.

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