I've never been to Maine. What I knew about it was shaped by a Doris Day movie from the 1950's about a plucky widow whose lobster business is almost ruined by a greedy railroad Titan, and by watching the Bush Presidents cavorting with their kinfolk in Kennebunkport. So until I started reading novels by Elizabeth Strout, the only Maine I knew was a seaside play land for WASP aristocrats and the people who fed them their lobster. Her debut novel,Amy and Isabelle, explores the tensions between a working-class mother and her adolescent daughter over the course of a long, hot, summer. The Pulitzer Prize winning, Olive Kitteridge, is a collection of short stories set in another town in Maine, which are loosely connected by the title character, a no-nonsense high school teacher with parenting issues. Family struggles are at the center of The Burgess Boys also, but Strout sets much of the action in Park Slope, Brooklyn and the families in distress include Somali refugees who have been lured to Maine as part of a re-population effort.
The Burgess brothers, both lawyers living in NYC, are reluctantly forced to return to Maine when their nephew is accused of committing a hate crime against the Somalis. I thought this might turn into a multi-generational family saga about a cursed American family -- think the Buddenbrooks of Egypt, Maine orThe Fall of the House of LL Bean -- but instead we get a soap and suds slugfest between miserable middle-aged siblings who finally learn to stop sniping at each other before all their marriages collapse. The most sensible residents are the "Somalians", an incorrect label used by certain Maineiacs lacking in political correctness. They, at least, are grateful that they aren't being starved, raped or murdered, but they are justifiably concerned that their children might morph into smugly entitled Americans. I guess even survival has a downside if it has to be lived in Shirley Falls. After reading this I think I prefer my earlier, misconceived impression of Maine as the land of not just lobster, but also Jack Lemmon, who played a much nicer lawyer as Ms. Day's costar, than those Burgess boys will ever be.