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'The Burgess Boys' by Elizabeth Strout

Book Club Discussion Questions

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The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout

The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout

Random House
The Burgess Boys is a novel by Elizabeth Strout, who is best known for the Pulitzer Prize winning Olive Kitteridge. Use these questions to think more deeply about the story and themes in the novel.

Spoiler Warning: These questions reveal details about the end of the novel. Finish the book before reading on.

  1. The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout is a novel that moves back and forth in time through flashbacks and also changes perspectives throughout the novel. Did you enjoy this style? Were you more sympathetic toward whichever character's head you were inside?
  2. One of the first characters we meet is Jim's wife, Helen. We get to see inside her head as she imagines their vacation, and then later when they are actually on it: "Over a whiskey sour with Dorothy on the terrace, while they waited for the men to shower from golf, Helen would say, 'Bob's an interesting fellow.' She might even mention the accident--how it was Bob, four years old, who'd been playing with the gears that caused the car to roll over their father and kill him; the man had walked down the hill of the driveway to fix something about the mailbox, leaving all three young kids in the car. A perfectly awful thing. And never mentioned. Jim had told her once in thirty years. But Bob was an anxious man, Helen liked to watch out for him.

    'You're rather a saint,' Dorothy might say, sitting back, her eyes blocked by huge sunglasses" (12-13).

    And then later, the reality of her conversation with Dorothy: "Helen--who would have liked to talk, she felt bubbles of chattiness rising inside her--felt compelled to pick up the newspaper and read the article [Dorothy] assigned to her...The article was about a refugee camp in Kenya. Who was in those camps? Somalis. And who knew? Not Helen. Well, now she knew...But mostly she didn't want to read it, and that made her feel she was a bad person, and here she was on a lovely (expensive) vacation and she did not want to feel like a bad person" (45).

    How do the interactions between Helen and Dorothy throughout the novel demonstrate this difference between Helen's self-perception and reality? Did you like Helen? Do you think she became more self-aware?

  3. All the characters in the novel are flawed -- Jim, Bob, Susan, Pam. Which ones did you like (or dislike) most? Who did you find most sympathetic? What did you want to happen to this family?
  4. Why do you think Bob was so tied to Jim even when Jim treated him badly? Was Bob happy?
  5. Was the storyline with Susan's son believable?
  6. Do you believe Jim's confession that he was the one that caused the car to roll down the hill? If so, how did this lie change the family and is it forgivable? If you do not believe him, why do you think each of the Burgess children believes him or herself responsible for the death?
  7. Were you drawn into the chapters about Abdikarim and the Somali refugees?
  8. Did you feel bad when Jim' marriage and life fell apart? Did you hope they would get back together?
  9. Were you satisfied with the end of the novel?
  10. Rate The Burgess Boys 1 to 5.
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