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 Brilliant Life of Eudora Honeysett, by Annie Lyons

This book is utterly charming! I don’t know how the author manages to make a crusty, unfriendly old woman and a force-of-nature 10-year-old into such appealing people! They could so easily have come across as unlikeable or bratty… but they don’t.

Eudora is an 85-year-old English woman who is done with life. She has no relations and wants, very badly, to end her life on her own terms. She seeks out a clinic in Switzerland that has a program of assisted suicide to which she can apply. Meanwhile, her next door neighbor has moved out and sold the house to a young family. Ten-year-old Rose enters Eudora’s life and manages not only to be a friend to Eudora, but to think of Eudora as her own best friend.

The book is, as I mentioned at the beginning of this review, simply charming. We see Rose and Eudora developing this most unlikely friendship in spite of Rose’s flamboyance which contradicts all of Eudora’s deeply held beliefs about proper attire and behavior. And in spite of Eudora’s persnickety reprovals of Rose’s ways. There are laugh-out-loud passages and others that just make you smile. 

If you’ve ever owned a cat, you might particularly enjoy Montgomery, Eudora’s cat.  When we first meet Montgomery, he is barely tolerant of Eudora, although she is the one who feeds and cares for him. This passage tells you all you need to know about their relationship at the beginning of the book:

“The cat plants himself with defiance across the top step. ’If you trip me up, there’ll be no one to feed you,’ she tells him. He stares up at her with momentary distaste, but seems to take the point, slinking down the stairs with practiced arrogance.”

But there is so much more to this book. In a series of short flashbacks woven throughout the basic story, we begin to understand why Eudora is the way she is, why she has no family, why some of Rose’s antics rub her decidedly the wrong way, why she’s so determined to end her life before her body deteriorates further. 

Ultimately, this is a book about death and about what makes a good death. And it’s about true friendship that transcends differences of age, of point-of-view, of time and place. It’s a great read!

–Jeanie Smith

Out of the Easy, by Ruta Sepetys

“My mother’s a prostitute.” Well, there’s an opening line for you! So begins 17-year-old Josie’s story set in 1950 New Orleans. This is a page-turner, a story of the southern gentility that covers over the decadent underbelly of “The Big Easy.” And a young girl’s desire to get out. There’s a murder mystery, dreams and dashed hopes, survival in tough circumstances. But this book is also about love and about family.

Josie’s family isn’t like yours or mine. Her father is unknown to her, but she fantasizes about who he might be. Her mother is well known to her, but is incapable of nurturing her, capable of great cruelty and actually betrays her time after time.  Her family is Willie, the madam of the brothel where her mother works; Cokie, the driver of Willie’s car and a devoted believer in Josie; Charlie, an author and bookstore owner who has suffered an assault that has left him diminished and in need of care; Patrick, Charlie’s son, who runs the bookstore where Josie works.  There are others, too, who surround this smart, worldly-wise teenager and keep watch over her, frequently without her knowledge.

The story centers on Josie’s chance meeting with Charlotte, in New Orleans to visit her cousin. Charlotte is a freshman at Smith College.  She and Josie form an immediate bond that leads to Josie’s determination to go to Smith and get “out of the Easy.” She’s smart enough, sure; she’s got the grades. But her “extra-curriculars” are not exactly what are featured on most college applications. She cleans at the brothel in the mornings and works at the bookstore, where her “family” has created an apartment for her where she has lived alone since she was eleven.

Josie’s relationship with Willie is charming, if not your normal “mother”-daughter one. Take this exchange, for instance. This is the morning routine, after Josie has cleaned up after the previous night. She takes Willie her morning coffee, made just so, along with a report:

“So what do you have,” she asked.

I picked up the pail. “Well, first, this huge thing.”  I pulled an enormous red shoe out of the bucket.

Willie nodded. “From Kansas City.  He paid two bills to dress up in stockings and dance with the girls.”

“And he left a shoe?” I asked.

“No the other one’s under the settee in the parlor.  I keep them up in the attic for guys like him.  Wipe them off and put them back up there.  What else?”

I pulled a twenty dollar bill out of the pail. “In Dora’s toilet tank.”

Willie rolled her eyes.

I produced a silver cigarette lighter from the pail.  “On Sweety’s bedside table.”

“Well done.  It belongs to an Uptown attorney.  What a horse’s ass.  Thinks he’s so smart.  Doesn’t know the difference between piss and perfume.  I’ll have fun returning that to him.  Maybe I’ll drop by his house at dinnertime.”

“And this,” I said.  “I found it in the upstairs hallway.”  I help up a bullet.

Willie put out her hand.

“Did you have one of the bankers here last night?” I asked.

“This isn’t from a banker’s gun,” said Willie.  “It’s for a .38.”

“How do you know?”

Willie reached under her pillow and pulled out a gun.  With a flick of her wrist she opened the cylinder, slid the bullet in the chamber, and snapped the cylinder back in place. “That’s how I know.”

Willie can be gruff, but she’s very well aware of the gem that Josie is and, as we learn, will do almost anything to protect her.

Josie’s growing desires to be admitted to Smith, to somehow find the money to pay the tuition, room and board, and to avoid Cincinnati, her mother’s murderous boyfriend, consume her and drive the plot. And a compelling plot it is. 

I’m not the only member of the book club who couldn’t put this book down. We’ll be reading more of Ruta Sepetys in coming months!

— Jeanie Smith