Elizabeth Strout is a writer I have admired tremendously ever since reading OLIVE KITTERIDGE, a novel which won her the Pulitzer Prize a few years back. I liked it so much that I immediately ordered her two earlier novels, AMY AND ISABELLE and ABIDE WITH ME, and I was not disappointed. Both were outstanding. But I didn't feel that immediate pull when I began reading her latest, THE BURGESS BOYS (even though its Maine setting is familiar ground to Strout fans). Indeed it was pretty heavy going for at least the first two hundred pages of the novel, which seemed to drag interminably with very little sense of momentum. While I did begin to get the sense of the slow, unhappy disintegration of a decidedly dysfunctional family, I had a hard time liking any of them - a crucial ingredient to any novel, I think. But "what about Bob?" you might ask. Well, okay, maybe Bob was likeable in a loser-ish kind of way. And I did feel a bit sorry for his poor beaten-down nephew, Zach, forced to live in that cold, loveless house with his angry, sharp-tongued mother, Susan (no wonder her husband left). But the central catalyst to the plot - the burgeoning Somali immigrant population of Shirley Falls, and their own tragic and violent backstory - just never really seemed to work. Their displaced patriarch, Abdikarim Ahmed, remained largely two-dimensional, even to the end of the book. The most charismatic of the Burgesses - at least to the outside world - is the ubersuccessful corporate white-collar attorney, Jim Burgess, who is also the eldest of the three children. In reality Jim is nothing less than an arrogant prick. But wait, he harbors a dark secret which, once revealed, is destined to change the whole tenor of the family dynamic. And it does. But I'm not telling what it is. Because that secret is crucial to how this tale of family woe unwinds. Perhaps one of the best-realized characters here, if there is one, is Jim's wife Helen. In her you come to know that the woman scorned and her "hell-hath-no-fury-like" has its miserable and lonely downside too. The other character I came to like, and wished there were more about her, was Susan's third-floor tenant, Mrs. Drinkwater. She had a definite Olive Kitteridge edge to her, particularly towards the end, with her throw-away lines like, "Regrets are no fun" or "Oh, phooey." Here is a woman whose backstory (not nearly enough of it here) could be a whole novel. The book was saved, however, by its last 50-75 pages, when things finally did begin to pick up steam and roll downhill. We learn that even a perfect prick can have his human side, and Strout admirably illustrates this in her unveiling of Jim's secret and how it ultimately nearly ruins his life. Actually, some readers may even cheer these events, mainly because Strout had done such a good job of making him the arbitrary villain of the piece. Personally, I felt a bit sorry for the guy. Flashes of Strout's brilliance as a writer crop up here and there throughout the book. Her descriptions of the bleak landscape of both small town Maine and rural Upstate New York are superb and could well be compared to the work of Richard Russo and the late Frederick Busch, who both rendered that desolate terrain so well. And here are a couple other examples of her brilliance. The first, an illustration of the emptiness of a life after a marriage has failed (Bob's, in this case) - "Terrifying, how the ending of his marriage had dismantled him. The silence - where there had been for so long the sound of Pam's voice, her chatter, her laughter, her sharp opinions, her sudden bursting forth of tears - the absence of all that, the silence of no showers running, no bureau drawers opening and shutting, even the silence of Bob's own voice, for he did not speak when he came home, did not recount to anyone his day - the silence almost killed him." Or here, in her description of the aftermath of miscarriage (Susan's) - "No, she had lost her daughter! And she learned - freshly, scorchingly - of the privacy of sorrow. It was as though she had been escorted through a door into some large and private club that she had not even known existed. Women who miscarried. Society did not care much for them. It really didn't. And the women in the club mostly passed each other silently. People outside the club said, 'You'll have another one.'" It took a while for all the strands of Strout's story to coalesce in THE BURGESS BOYS, maybe too long, but her message came through early on, in a passage where Bob's ex-wife Pam thinks about the three Burgess siblings and "a fundamental decency ... that all three kids, for all their differences, seemed to share." This, perhaps, is a recurring theme in the fiction of Elizabeth Strout: that, if one looks hard enough, there is usually good to be found in nearly everyone. The Burgess boys - and their sister - were no exception. If you liked Strout's earlier books, then you will probably want to read this one too, but don't be surprised if you feel like you're working just a little harder this time. The ending is worth it.