The Burgess kids lost their father in a freakish accident when Jim was eight and the twins, Bob and Susan, were four. They were too young to be blamed for what happened, but each of them, in their own way, would be traumatized by the collective guilt associated with that tragic day. Now, decades later, they are still paying the price.
The boys both practice law in New York City and have left little Shirley Falls, Maine far behind. Their sister, on the other hand, has never even been to New York City and still lives in Shirley Falls with her troubled teenage son. The Burgess family, while not quite estranged, is most certainly not a close one. Zach can barely remember his uncles. And when Jim and Bob are together, Jim still takes great joy in belittling his brother, something he has done since at least the day their father died – behavior that the good-natured Bob seems hardly to notice.
But suddenly, all the way from Shirley Falls, Susan frantically reaches out to her brothers for support and legal help. Zach is in trouble, big trouble, and neither the boy nor his mother is emotionally prepared for what they are about to face. For the first time since their mother died, the Burgess kids are together in their old hometown, and they can barely stand the town – or each other.
With remarkable insight, Elizabeth Strout, beginning with the trauma they suffered as small children, moves up and down the Burgess family timeline to explain how they became the people they are today. Bob and Susan, neither of whom can handle stress or confrontation, are the most obviously emotionally stunted of the three, but the outwardly successful Jim is only better at hiding his problems than they are. Layer by layer, Stroud develops their distinct personalities, and when they are finally forced to confront their past, it is only a question of which of them will crack first.
The Burgess kids did not grow up to become likable adults, and Strout does not pretend that they did, but it is hard not to be sympathetic as one observes their efforts to cope with their lives. Their father, after all, was only the most obvious victim of the accident that claimed his life – there were three other victims that day.