NEW YORK (Reuters) - Like her 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Olive Kitteridge,” much of Elizabeth Strout’s new novel takes place in a small Maine town in which the characters tackle big issues.
“The Burgess Boys” centers on the family dynamics that play out between the title characters, Jim and Bob Burgess, and their sister Susan, who calls upon her brothers to smooth out a scandal involving her son. As they deal with the fallout, the siblings’ relationships shift and evolve.
“Those early impressions of the world, you share those with your siblings, and I think that’s a very hard bond to break,” Strout, 57, said in an interview.
The siblings are bonded by a tragic accident that killed their father when they were children, haunting them and their and their interrelations well into their adult years.
When Susan’s loner teenage son Zach heaves a pig’s head into a mosque, the brothers - flashy celebrity lawyer Jim and diffident public defender Bob - return to mitigate the legal consequences and smooth tensions between the white Mainers and the Somali immigrant community, as well among themselves.
The book has surged up the best seller list since its release on March 26, and currently holds the No. 3 spot on the New York Times list of best-selling fiction. Critics have lauded Strout’s precision in capturing the texture of her characters, though some have criticized the book’s scope as being too broad.
Strout acknowledged that childhood behavior patterns can be hard to change, but said the transformations that occur within the Burgess family show that it is possible to break old habits.
“I think by the end of the book they have shifted positions so dramatically in terms of their dynamics, and Jim has fallen so far from his original perch,” she said. “And they’ve established a new way of seeing each other.”
In addition to family dynamics, Strout wades into the often troubled relationship between older, white Mainers and newer arrivals from different cultures like the Muslim refugees from Somalia.
The book includes a few brief sections from the point of view of a local Somali man, and details the white population’s sometimes clumsy attempts to reach out to the Somalis while privately puzzling over many of their practices.
Despite the seemingly provocative nature of throwing a severed pig’s head into a mosque, meek and friendless Zach claims his action was a teenage prank gone wrong and that he had no idea that it would be taken so seriously.
Strout said she based the incident in “The Burgess Boys” on real events.
“As a citizen I certainly find the act reprehensible,” Strout said. “As a novelist, I get the luxury of not having to judge the person who did it, but rather make him up.”
“It seemed much more interesting to me, novelistically speaking, to go in there and not just have him some kind of skinhead who is just a complete racist, because where is the friction in that for the reader?”
Whether family or neighbors from other countries, Strout believes that the most effective way to surmount difference is what she summed up as “forced confinement with the other.”
“I think really that the only way a person can open their heart to someone who is so much an other is really by knowing them ... whether that’s in a classroom, or a soccer team, or a food pantry, or any of those things,” she said.
“I mean, we’re kind of more alike than we are different.”
Reporting by Andrea Burzynski; Editing by Chris Michaud and Eric Walsh