This book review originally appeared in the Jacksonville newspaper, The Source.
By Elizabeth Strout
286 pp. Random House, $15
I arose this morning 58 hours before The Burgess Boys lands on our front porch. I tell myself that surely I can wait a few more days for this particular Elizabeth Strout novel to be published. After all, it’s been five years since her last book, and I’ve managed to get through that stretch of time more or less patiently.
As I wait, I find myself returning to Strout’s earlier work, especially her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Olive Kitteridge (2008). Strout’s characters stick to your mind’s ribs. When you must put her books aside, the characters linger in your thoughts throughout the day. Not because they’re so likeable, but because they’re so very human.
Consider “A Little Burst” one of Olive Kitteridge’s 13 interlinked stories. Olive, a retired seventh-grade math teacher slips into a bedroom to rest during her son’s wedding reception. She lies down, carefully arranging her mother-of-the-groom dress about her. She has sewn it herself for the occasion and is pleased with how the dress has turned out: “…a gauzy green muslin with big reddish-pink geraniums all over it.”
She knows, however, she’s become a big person as she’s aged. “her ankles puffed out, her shoulders rolled up behind her neck, and her wrists and hands seem to have become the size of man’s…Right now,” she thinks, “she probably looks like a fat dozing seal wrapped in some kind of gauze bandage.” Or, as she overhears her new daughter-in-law put it, “I couldn’t believe it. I mean that she would really wear it.”
In Strout’s stories, the ordinary is illuminated and, as in life, satisfaction is often book-ended with disappointment, hope with reality. In some stories, we catch but a fleeting glimpse of Olive. In others, she is emphatically the star. She’s brusque with her husband’s co-workers, with children, and waitresses; yet she can be compassionate and even moved to tears by the predicaments of others.
It’s the imperfections in Strout’s characters that invite our empathy. It’s their honesty that wins our hearts. Thus, we start out by knowing we could never, under any circumstances, befriend Olive Kitteridge and end up by wishing she lived in town so we could join her for doughnuts.
I can’t wait to meet The Burgess Boys.
Reviewed by Sally Nurss