The Burgess Boys, by Elizabeth Strout

The Burgess boys are brothers, Jim and Bob, raised in small town rural Maine. Jim is the older by five years, the golden boy, high school football quarterback, successful attorney, the shining example of what this small town has produced. Jim has a loving wife in Helen. Bob is affable and kind, but haunted enough by an unspoken-of accident that killed their father when he was four years old that he smokes too much and drinks too much. Bob’s marriage to Pam has ended and he is alone. Both have escaped Maine and live in New York. Bob is also an attorney, but a public defender.  Jim belittles Bob every time they are in contact. But Bob never reacts angrily or strikes back, either with words or with fists.

Yet there is another sibling. She is Susan, Bob’s twin sister, who has remained in their town of Shirley Falls. And it is in the crisis in Susan’s life that the story unfolds.  Susan has a troubled son, Zach, and he is in big trouble with the law. She calls her brothers for help.

There are others in Shirley Falls too. They are the Somali immigrants, welcomed by some, disdained by others, misunderstood by all. They dress differently, keep to themselves, worship in their make-shift mosque, speak only the most broken English. Their customs and ways do not fit the “melting pot” image of how immigrants are supposed to blend into the American culture. These Somalis have been deeply offended by Zach’s crime – he has thrown a pig’s head into their mosque.

One of the most interesting things about this novel is that the reader doesn’t really bond with any of the characters. Are any likeable? Well, not really, at least not through most of the book. Bob is the most likeable of the lot, but he  is such a wuss that he cheerfully accepts the verbal abuse of Jim and, as it turns out, of Susan. Jim is arrogant and mean. Susan is pitiful. Yet they and their story are compelling. I really cared about this family. How Strout has managed to do that is remarkable. This is a thoughtful portrayal of a family and how that family copes, or doesn’t cope, with tragedy and heartache. Strout has a keen eye for family dynamics, for the ways in which families create both walls and bridges. Her dialogue is rich.

As Jim’s life crumbles, as Bob’s life heals, as Susan’s and Zach’s lives move through this crisis, Strout unveils the bonds that are family despite everything. 

“What am I going to do, Bob?  I have no family.”

“You have family,” Bob said. “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 too much of a drip now. That’s called family.”

And, ultimately, it is the Somali elder who saves Zach. Abdikarim, a man who has known both evil and fear, has seen not evil in Zach’s eyes, but fear. Unbeknownst to almost everyone, it is he who convinces the authorities to drop the charges against Zach. 

This novel is rich with nuance, both about families and how they function, but also about immigrants to the United States and the costs to them and their families as they blend and don’t blend into American culture. It is also rich with what and whom we don’t know. Bob and Jim have holes in what they know about each other and about their own past. The Maine natives don’t know the Somalis. Susan doesn’t know her son. The knowledge gaps are artfully revealed and ultimately that’s what links all the characters. As the prologue says, “Nobody ever knows anyone.”

Reviewed by Jeanie Smith

The Great Believers, by Rebecca Makkai

“We were the great believers.
I have never cared for any men as much as for these who felt the first springs when I did, and saw death ahead, and were reprieved—and who now walk the long stormy summer.”
— F. Scott Fitzgerald, “My Generation”

Rebecca Makkai’s great believers are those who faced the trauma of the AIDS epidemic in Chicago in the mid-1980s, part of a lost generation of men who were the first to be affected by the deadly disease that decimated the gay community. With gentle honesty, she shows us these men — their lives, and their dreams of love, a family, a home of their own. They faced the cruelty and stigmatism of a mysterious disease that brought loss after loss of loved ones, with no hope of a cure.

The main character, Yale, has a rewarding career as an art curator, but his life is thrown into chaos after a brief encounter with a young man and a major betrayal by his partner. Then he meets Nora, an elderly woman who was part of the art world in Paris in the 1920s, who offers a valuable trove of original art that could make Yale a major player in the 1980s art world.  

If he can pull it off.

If he survives to pull it off.

A second story line follows Nora’s great niece Fiona into middle age and is a conduit for the stories of another lost generation, the survivors of World War I. Fiona is also the sister of the first man to die of AIDS in the novel and is the figurative little sister of his entire group of friends. In Paris, she reconnects with other survivors of that Chicago group while she searchers for evidence of Nora’s history as a muse, model, and artist. She uncovers the stories of the men who died in the war, or who survived mentally and physically damaged. She’s also there searching for her daughter, who had joined a cult, but escaped and then disappeared.

That’s a lot of stories for a reader to digest.

Makkai says her initial goal was to write a book about Nora looking back at her own history, but the 1980s section took on a life of its own. Ultimately the AIDS story line became the book’s primary focus, but Makkai didn’t want to give up on Nora. The result, though, is a novel that goes in so many directions with so many characters the reader sometimes loses the narrative.

Still, Makkai did remarkable research and her writing is so strong we feel the 1980’s characters’ trauma, appreciating the horror they faced in a way we might not have done in real time. Makkai gives AIDS a staggering humanity.

She says the book is in many ways a war novel. As one character in 1980s Chicago notes, “This is a war, it is. It’s like you’ve been in the trenches for seven years. And no one’s gonna understand that. No one’s gonna give you a Purple Heart.”

— Pat Prijatel

Bury Your Dead, by Louise Penny

Good writers build a strong story arc that sustains their novel. Better writers manage double arcs. It takes a Louise Penny to create three separate story lines, braiding them together seamlessly around a complex theme.

Bury Your Dead is a mystery masterpiece in which Penny shows confidence in her craft and in her reader. We’ll be deep in one storyline when she abruptly, with little or no transition, drops us into another a second story, then a third. We follow because we’re living the stories with her. We need no transition. We’re there.

The book includes one current and one past murder, plus a recent police raid that went horribly wrong, and from which both Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and his second-on-command, Inspector Jean-Guy Beauvoir are recovering. In all three storylines, the title comes into play as characters bury their dead in multiple ways, sometimes unsuccessfully.

The current case is the murder of a man who has been in search of the body of the explorer Samuel de Champlain. He thinks he has found Champlain in the basement of the Literary and Historical Society of Quebec. As Gamache is recovering at the home of his mentor in Quebec City, the Lit and His, as the society is nicknamed, has become one of Gamache’s favorite spots, and he is among the first on the scene when the murder is discovered. This plotline takes us into the history of Quebec and the centuries-long conflicts between the English and the French. Where is Champlain’s body? Nobody knows for sure, but Penny offers some suggestions. Under the Lit and His? You’ll have to read the book to find out. Here, the dead clearly include Champlain, but also the casualties of the Seven Years War of the mid 1700s between the French and English. Focusing on the ongoing conflict between the Quebecois and Quebeckers, Penny shows that those dead remain much among us in political tensions that still divide the people of Quebec.

The second story line is in Gamache’s head, as he relives the disastrous case that left him and Jean-Guy seriously wounded and killed several of Gamache’s agents, including Paul Morin, a young man with a talent on the violin and a gift of storytelling. Gamache maintains a 24-hour phone conversation with Morin while the entire Sûreté du Québec tries to find where the agent is being held. He has been kidnapped and attached to a bomb that will detonate in 24 hours—sooner, if the line goes quiet. Whoever planned this wants Gamache to stay at his desk. He doesn’t, of course. This is a seminal case in the series and influences several of the subsequent books. Yet the story is told only in flashbacks. On first reading, you think you missed a book somewhere, but no, this is the first mention of the case, told as Gamache mentally recreates it. Penny trusts us to get it, and we do. The burial of the agents who died under Gamache’s command was so traumatic that his grief-stricken face ended up on magazine covers.

The third story arc is perhaps the most tragic, ending the novel with a twist of family loss and revenge. It’s a continuation of the previous novel, A Brutal Telling, in which Olivier Brule, co-owner of the bistro in the mythical and magical Three Pines, was convicted of murder. Gamache begins rethinking the case and asks Jean-Guy, who is also on medical leave, to re-investigate. The resolution is the stuff of Greek tragedy, and leaves behind a devastated family. In this case, the dead aren’t who we think they are, nor are they buried where we think.

This is a heady book that gets better with multiple readings. It has Penny’s trademark charm and wit. One English character knows French well as a written language, but when she tries to speak it, she encourages people to become umlauts and calls the night a strawberry. Gamache wanders the streets of Old Quebec City in the quiet of the night, his steps crunching in the snow, with Henri, his beloved German Shepherd who is so full of love it doesn’t matter that he’s far from the world’s smartest dog. The Three Pines characters all make an appearance, and the ragged and rugged old poet, Ruth, builds a unique bond with Jean-Guy. It’s cold in Quebec, but these characters stay warm with one another, settled into comfy chairs in front of the bistro fire, watching through mullioned windows as the snow falls onto the three pines in the town center.

— Pat Prijatel