Audiobook Review – The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout

The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth StroutTitle: The Burgess Boys
Author: Elizabeth Strout
Narrator: Cassandra Campbell
Audiobook Length: 13 hours, 29 minutes
Genre: Fiction
Origins: Mine. All mine.
Release Date: 26 March 2013
Bottom Line: Meh.

“Haunted by the freak accident that killed their father when they were children, Jim and Bob Burgess escaped from their Maine hometown of Shirley Falls for New York City as soon as they possibly could. Jim, a sleek, successful corporate lawyer, has belittled his bighearted brother their whole lives, and Bob, a Legal Aid attorney who idolizes Jim, has always taken it in stride. But their long-standing dynamic is upended when their sister, Susan — the Burgess sibling who stayed behind — urgently calls them home. Her lonely teenage son, Zach, has gotten himself into a world of trouble, and Susan desperately needs their help. And so the Burgess brothers return to the landscape of their childhood, where the long-buried tensions that have shaped and shadowed their relationship begin to surface in unexpected ways that will change them forever.”

Thoughts: Elizabeth Strout’s The Burgess Boys occurs in Maine and post-9/11 New York City. Covering such a wide variety of topics like the Islamic faith, hate crimes, adultery, divorce, empty nest syndrome, and the messiness of being an adult, the story follows Jim, Bob and Susan Burgess as they come together for the first time in years to defend Susan’s son from a stupid but serious prank. The family dynamic is painful to observe, as they harbor years of ill-will and resentment towards each other and their shared family trauma. The reconnection forces them to reevaluate their lives, and the consequences of such internal contemplation are surprising and wide-spread.

Contemptible characters are necessary within any story, and it is possible to enjoy a story about such characters. Unfortunately, with The Burgess Boys, it is unclear whether Ms. Strout means for her characters to be so unenjoyable. Unenjoyable they are too as they each focus on their own biased, self-centered lifestyle. The tragic accident that took the life of their father explains some of their attitude, just as their fractious relationships with each other are nothing more than sibling rivalry. However, there is something off about each of them that makes it difficult for a reader to feeling anything but disgust at their general ill temper and superior attitudes. Jim is particularly prickly and arrogant towards everything and everybody, making it all too easy for a reader to feel satisfaction at any hardship he faces. Confusion remains as to whether Ms. Strout intends for these types of reader reactions, but the fact remains that it is difficult to like the Burgess siblings, making it equally tough to enjoy this character-driven novel.

It is always pleasurable to listen to Cassandra Campbell as she narrates a story, and with The Burgess Boys, it is no different. In fact, it is a testament to her skill that she makes this mediocre novel more enjoyable. While she is not able to overcome the deficiencies of the characters, her performance does add an air of sympathy to them, something absent from the one-dimensional characters. In essence, Ms. Campbell does as much as she can to increase a reader’s interest and generate some sympathy for characters which are faintly disgusting in their selfishness. One’s enjoyment, or lack thereof, of the novel has nothing to do with Ms. Campbell’s excellent pacing, voice utilization, and performance, as hers is an example of a narrator improving an ordinary story.

Unfortunately, The Burgess Boys fails to impress with its story of family disharmony and personal growth. The siblings’ relationships, while they do change and improve, are just so disturbing in the beginning that it is difficult to sympathize with any of the issues they face. While Bob is the most sympathetic of the three, even his weakness or inability to stand up for himself against his overbearing and hyper-critical brother and sister is unsettling and difficult to stomach. Readers who can overcome these disquieting characters will find a pleasant enough story about complicated family relationships, but others will just find themselves wondering why they should care about such an overly negative family.

10 Responses to Audiobook Review – The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout
  1. Andi @ Estella's Revenge
    August 8, 2013 | 2:37 PM

    Aww, I’m sorry this one was only “meh.”

    • Michelle
      August 8, 2013 | 2:42 PM

      It’s okay. I had heard it wasn’t all that great when I downloaded it.

  2. Carrie K.
    August 8, 2013 | 3:34 PM

    That’s too bad. I really enjoyed Strout’s Abide With Me, but haven’t read anything else by her. Guess I won’t be adding this one to my to-read list.

    • Michelle
      August 9, 2013 | 7:43 AM

      You could always read it if you run out of books to read!!

  3. Shannon @ River City Reading
    August 8, 2013 | 7:18 PM

    Totally agree! I just found all of the characters to be so stereotypical…and just when I thought they might do something to break from their usual role, they fell right in line. It was just a really frustrating read for me.

    • Michelle
      August 9, 2013 | 7:42 AM

      I’m so glad you said that. I really struggled with this one, thinking it should be better than it actually is. I was thoroughly frustrated too and found myself zoning out while listening and not even bothering to go back and find out what I missed.

  4. JoAnn @ Lakeside Musing
    August 9, 2013 | 10:22 AM

    I read this one and enjoyed it… though not as much as her other novels. Cassandra Campbell is one of my favorite narrators, so am sure the audio would have been a good experience for me, too. Sorry it was just ‘meh’ for you

    • Michelle
      August 12, 2013 | 7:29 AM

      Cassandra Campbell is one of the only reasons I continued to listen to the book. She is an excellent narrator and definitely improves the story, IMO.

  5. Lisa
    August 11, 2013 | 8:50 PM

    Sorry this one didn’t work for you. I’m with Joann on this one; I did like it but not as much as I enjoyed Olive Kitteridge.

    • Michelle
      August 12, 2013 | 7:25 AM

      I haven’t had a chance to read Olive Kitteridge just yet, but I’m hoping that I enjoy it more than I did this one!

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