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April 14, 2013

“The Burgess Boys”

by Anne Paddock

You have family. You have a wife who hates you. Kids who are furious with you. A brother and sister who make you insane. And, a nephew who used to be kind of a drip but apparently is not so much of a drip now. That’s called family.

The Burgess Boys, written by Elizabeth Stout, author of the Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Olive Kitteridge, is the story of a family from a small town in Maine. Barbara Burgess is left a widow after a freak accident in the driveway that kills her husband leaving her with three young children (8-year-old Jim and 4-year old twins, Bob and Susan) to raise on her own.  A crazy mother who makes no secret of preferring her boys over her daughter, Barbara unwittingly sets up her kids for emotional disaster.

Jim is the superstar firstborn, a graduate of Harvard Law School who dreamed of becoming the Governor of Maine but instead pursued a criminal defense career with a New York law firm that specializes in white-collar crime. With his wealthy control freak of a wife, Helen, Jim tries to distance himself as far as possible from his hometown and his siblings. Beneath the tall handsome well clothed exterior is a simmering anger that rages at those he loves most.

Bob is 51 years old and works as a legal aid defense attorney in New York City. A likable guy who gets along with virtually everyone,  Bob maintains a strong friendship with his ex-wife and considers his brother, Jim the center of his universe even though the feelings are not reciprocated. Sensitive and caring, Bob is the brother who will always be there for his family despite his tendency to drink too much and feel sorry for himself.

Susan, a 51-year old divorced opthamologist, is an angry woman who grew up knowing “her own mother preferred the boys; Susan knew this as clearly as she knew the color red” and although she does the best she can, she is barely able to function. Her son, Zachary Olson is a skinny introverted young adult who was bullied in school and had a hard time finding his way despite his mother’s best efforts to love and protect him. One day, Zachary decides to throw a pig’s head through the front door of a local mosque which puts the Burgesses hometown, Shirley Falls, Maine on the national news. The Somali refugee population who recently  descended on Shirley Falls and frequents the mosque are stuck in the middle between those who want to help them and those who want to see them go back to Africa.

Desperate to save her son, Susan calls her brothers back to Shirley Falls to deal with the media, townspeople, and the legal system that threatens to take her son away. The Burgess Boys is the story of a dysfunctional family (which one isn’t, right) trying to function in the aftermath of a situation that can tear not only the family apart but the small town of Shirley Falls, Maine.  With a full cast of characters who are driven by pride, appearance, and demons from the past, The Burgess Boys is at times heartbreaking, sad and familiar as the characters strive to find meaning in their lives:

She pictured a dandelion gone by, the white, almost airless pieces of her family scattered so far. The key to contentment was to never ask why; she had learned that long ago.

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