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Strout makes the mundane matter

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When did this happen in Maine?

A lonely, awkward teen throws a pig's head into a mosque in a quiet Puritan town in Maine. His two uncles come home from New York City to help deal with the fallout, and ultimately with the childhood tragedy that has shaped their lives.

American Pulitzer Prize winner Elizabeth Strout has based her topical but slightly disappointing new novel, The Burgess Boys, on a real-life incident in the small town in Maine where she went to college. In both cases, real and fictional, tension between displaced Somalis and longtime residents flare up over what authorities call a hate crime.

But the legal proceedings and racial issues are just a backdrop for the real story of the relationship between the brothers, Jim and Bob, and Bob's twin sister Susan.

Jim is a slick, high-profile lawyer. Bob is a big-hearted legal-aid lawyer content to live in his older brother's very critical shadow.

Bob also lives with an unspoken but crushing guilt. As the family legend goes, four-year-old Bob accidently killed his father in a freak accident he barely remembers.

So there's a lot going on in The Burgess Boys, including the fact the story is told from multiple perspectives. Strout alternates among all three of the siblings, Jim's uptight wife who comes from old money, Bob's ex-wife, his future wife and an elder in the Somali community, just to name a few.

But all those plot points and perspectives feel a bit tired. And in the hands of a less skilled writer, the plot, with its heavy themes of racism and family wounds, could easily pander to book-club discussions. But as the title suggests, this book is really about people, and Strout can nail the beautiful minutiae of characters and their social interactions like a modern-day Jane Austen.

Strout is as sharp, insightful and nuanced as she was in Olive Kitteridge, the novel that won her the Pulitzer Prize in 2008. That book was a series of stories also based in small-town Maine. Like shards in a kaleidoscope, Strout gave us side glances at Olive, enough to paint a bigger picture of a very compelling and very flawed human being.

In The Burgess Boys, Strout is at her most captivating not when writing about the big issues but in the small moments. She can make the reader care more about a host's desperate attempts to keep the banter flowing at a small family gathering than she can about what will happen to the teen who threw the pig's head:

"All Helen knew was that no one was helping, it was completely -- somehow, among four adults -- up to her to keep this social moment afloat," Strout writes.

"It was easy to blame Susan, and Helen did. The recessive quality of her posture, the shapeless turtleneck, pilled toward the bottom it was of such poor quality -- all this depressed Helen, and there were the quivers of pity that ran through her too -- it fizzed her up inside, she was dizzy with this many-threaded rage."

There is nothing groundbreaking about characters finally coming to terms with their childhood, and nothing new in the idea that "nobody ever knows anyone."

And while it not as satisfying as Olive Kitteridge, Strout's ability to cast new light on the mundane makes The Burgess Boys a compelling read.

Joanne Kelly teaches journalism at Red River College. To find out more about her book club at McNally Robinson, email her at jmkelly@rrc.ca.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 30, 2013 J9

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