“Bobby Burgess ‘was the one who killed his father.” (p 5)
“But after Susan Burgess’s son did what he did - after the story about him had been in the newspapers ... and on television too” (p 7)
This is an excellent way to get you to read what, despite the plot kicking in immediately, could be quite a slow start. Strout writes reflectively, meditatively. She takes her time to build character.
She is particularly good on noting the minutiae of family life and what it means. What it is like to live in an apartment. How a wife always picks up her husband's socks. The sadness of being unable to have children. The loneliness of being human.
Jim B is a successful lawyer, married to Helen; the kids have grown up and left. Bob B, divorced by his wife so she could have the children she no longer really wants, is a much less successful lawyer working for the public. They live in NY having left their home in Maine after their mother died (dad died long before, crushed when the car he had just left his small kids in slipped its brake). Susan, Bob's twin sister, who had also been in that car, lives at home with her son, socially awkward Zach. The story begins because Zach has thrown a pig's head into a mosque and will have to appear in court.
And from there their lives unwind.
It is a sad book. Most of the characters are lonely even when they are putting the bravest face possible on it. It is like Pandora's box which, opened, let out all the sorrows of the world, but also released into the world Hope.
As Bob says to Jim near the end: "You have family ... You have a wife who hates you. Kids who are furious with you. A brother and sister who make you insane. And a nephew who used to be a kind of a drip but apparently is not so much of a drip now. That's called family.” (p 379)
Other great lines
- “My mother did not like Unitarians; she thought they were atheists who didn't want to be left out of the fun of Christmas.” (p 2)
- “Young couples who arrived at the coffee shops with hair still wet from showering after morning love.” (p 32)
- “In New York raising children is a horrendously competitive sport. Really fierce and bloody.” (p 53)
- “I would say the Wally Packer trial spoiled him, but I thought he was an asshole before that.” (p 101)
- “He thought of all the people in the world who felt they been saved by a city. He was one of them. Whatever darkness leaked it's way in, there were always lights on in different windows here, each light like a gentle touch on his shoulder.” (p 109)
- “Pam was being sarcastic, but it was one pebble thrown against a thick windshield.” (p 129)
- “The funny old lady from exercise class could come too. You lie on the mat, she had said ... and then you pray to God you get up” (p 166)
- “Terrifying, how the ending of his marriage has dismantled him.” (p 217)
- “Bob, I killed him.” (p 273)
- “An uneasiness was following Helen, as though a shadow walked behind her, and if Helen stopped moving, the shadow just waited.” (p 288)
- “And it was too late. No one wants to believe something is too late, but it is always becoming too late, and then it is.” (p 309)
- “Helen wanted to say something to Ariel that would hurt her, and when Ariel, reaching into the car's front seat, handed her a box of cookies she had made that day especially for them, Helen said, well I don't eat chocolate anymore.” (p 316)
- “As though her mind had Tourette's syndrome and these terrible things went uncontrollably through it.” (p 324)
- “I kind of thought I'd be a scientist tramping around Africa finding parasites and people would think I was great.” (p 358)
Books by Elizabeth Strout reviewed in this blog include: