Strout’s Sequel Falls Flat

Sequels are risky business. Will that second kiss, second season of an addictive series or second visit to Paris make us swoon like the first, or leave us wishing we’d left well enough alone?

Alas, less is often more. Think Barbara Kingsolver’s “Flight Behavior” (versus “The Lacuna”), or Sarah Gruen’s“Ape House” (versus “Water For Elephants.”) Add Elizabeth Strout’s “The Burgess Boys” (versus her 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning “Olive Kittreridge”) to the list.

The Burgess siblings, boy wonder Jimmy and the loser younger twins Susie and Bobby, grew up in Shirley Falls, Maine. Flash forward 30 years to the same town, a site frozen in time with one exception — the recent near doubling of its population by the arrival of refugee Somalis whose presence puts it on the map as the second largest community of Somalis in America. It also puts the town on edge. This is rural, white, overweight and impoverished Maine. The lithe ebony-skinned Somalis with their brilliant silk head coverings, unisex caftans and foreign language, customs and mosque, do not exactly blend in.

Predictably (and somewhat stereotypically), there is an incident that may or may not be a serious hate crime. Susie still lives in Shirley Falls in the family home, and her troubled, sad sack son is the perpetrator. The Burgess boys are both Manhattan lawyers living in Brooklyn. Jimmy has a corner office, a six-figure salary and a six-figure patrician wife, and Bobby still wears worn baggy cords to his job as legal aid counsel. Susie summons them to Shirley Falls for emotional and professional support. Instead, the reunion compels the middle-aged siblings to confront their demoralizing childhood and the trauma that changed each of their lives. None is up to the task. They claw open barely scabbed-over wounds and then retreat to lick their fresh gashes.

The “Olive Kitteridge” Strout, who trusted her reader’s ability to read between the lines, is sorely missed here. Instead we get the disengaged Strout and her clumsy, uninspired, aloof dialogues. I wanted to feel compassion and empathy for these lost souls, but Strout wouldn’t let me in. These individuals have no depth, no exposed inner world to tap into.

Strout’s prose sparks briefly when she turns her pen to the Somali community. Here, her Pulitzer Prize-caliber craftsmanship rematerializes with sentences that enchant and inspire.

By the end of “Olive Kitteridge,” I cared deeply for my complicated friend Olive and wasn’t yet ready to part company. I longed for the last sentence of “The Burgess Boys,” and if any of the lot of them had trespassed for even one more syllable, I would have called the cops.

I have experienced the magic and intimacy KingsoIver, Gruen and Shreve can create when writing at their best. I still eagerly await their newest publications, and I will do the same for the next Strout. But it will only be because I have not given up hope that when I open the first page, it will be Olive who greets me. If it’s the Burgess clan instead, I’m outta here.

The Burgess Boys 

Elizabeth Strout

Random House Publishing Group, 2013

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