There was a time in 2009 where it felt as if everyone I knew was reading “Olive Kitteridge”, Elizabeth Strout's book about the residents of the small community of Crosby on the coast of Maine. Strout created a series of interlocking stories, some in which Olive is the main character and others in which she stays on the periphery, which sketched with deft strokes the strengths, the flaws, and the complicated inner lives of various residents.
In her latest book The Burgess Boys Maine itself, specifically Shirley Falls, becomes one of her characters. The Burgess boys – Jim and Bob – are in fact grown men, and both have long ago fled Maine for New York, where Jim is a powerful lawyer and Bob is a struggling Legal Aid attorney, always in the shadow of his more accomplished and successful older brother whom he idolizes. Only Bob's twin sister Susie has remained in Maine, and it is her teenaged son Zach's legal difficulties which draw the two men reluctantly back to their hometown. And their return stirs up memories in them both of the childhood tragedy which drove them to leave Maine.
Literary conventions abound – the native returning home, the love/hate relationship between brothers, the corrosive effect of keeping secrets, the clash between natives and outsiders. But Strout avoids stereotypes to create honest characters, as she slowly reveals the ripple effects of a single tragic incident on all of their lives.