"With Empire Falls Richard Russo cements his reputation as one of America's most compelling and compassionate storytellers. Miles Roby has been slinging burgers at the Empire Grill for 20 years, a job that cost him his college education and much of his self-respect. What keeps him there? It could be his bright, sensitive daughter Tick, who needs all his help surviving the local high school. Or maybe it's Janine, Miles' soon-to-be ex-wife, who's taken up with a noxiously vain health-club proprietor. Or perhaps it's the imperious Francine Whiting, who owns everything in town-and seems to believe that "everything" includes Miles himself. In Empire Falls Richard Russo delves deep into the blue-collar heart of America in a work that overflows with hilarity, heartache, and grace."
None of the characters are one-dimensional; there is no one who is singularly good or evil. Rather, one comes to realize and believe the reasons for their actions. This understanding makes for a rich story about the people and the town of Empire Falls, one I will remember.
And so life for Miles drones on in Empire Falls – complete with hard knocks, hilarity, and pains in the ass. He is embroiled in a divorce he doesn’t want from Janine – a walking irony who likes to "piss and moan and rant and rave and sob her heart out" (426) – and is intent on marrying the "banty rooster" and gym-rat, Walt Comeau. Miles is having difficulty with Jimmy Minty, too, the local on-the-take cop, who is “sneaky and mean and envious and dangerous” (99). And his father, Max, who "smelled rancid and was a pain in the ass" (123), has him nearly to the point of distraction. The only bright light in Miles’ existence is his adolescent daughter, Tick: precocious and full of teenage angst, and totally disgusted with her mother for making Walt Comeau her stepfather. The novel takes a gut-wrenching turn I didn’t see coming when tragedy lambasts Empire Falls – and Miles might easily have lost her …
One of the accolades – one-liners and so often cliché – on the back cover of Empire Falls notes, Richard Russo can write small town like no other. That he can! This a story and a cast of characters that is not to be missed!
Favourite Moment of Hilarity:
Max and senile elderly priest make off with the church's tithes and Crown Victoria and hit up the Florida Keys for some sun: "His father wasn't too bad a driver when he was sober, but of course he wouldn't besober until their money ran out. Father Tom hadn't been too bad a driver when he still had his mind, but now he was easily confused, and Miles doubted he had much experience at freeway driving, or any driving, really, outside of rural mid-Maine ... In the keys, once the money ran out, Max would tire of the old priest's company and probably call St. Cat's and tell Father Mark where to come and pick him up. Miles just hoped Father Tom would not return with an ass full of obscene tattoos." (341)
Even though Miles Roby is the main protagonist of Empire Falls the entire town comes alive by Richard Russo's artistic and skillful writing. Like any small community Empire Falls has its fair share of quirky people and Miles Roby's personal life is not only know by everyone else, but is commented and cared about by all.
Empire Falls is the story of town in Maine that is busted. The mills have closed, and the only people hanging on are the people that just hang on. These are people who have known each other since high school, and they know that their kids will grow up to have known each other since high school while still staying in this same town. The story revolves around Miles Roby. Miles runs the Empire Grill which is owned by Francine Whitting, the widow of the man who owned it all. Accordingly, Mrs. Whitting still owns most of it (having sold the mill to watch it go down tubes) and rules it behind the scenes. Miles is getting divorced, has a teenage daughter, and a father that is more trouble than he is worth. Add in a soon to be ex-mother-in-law who believes in Miles more than she does her own daughter, the soon to be ex-wife’s fiancé, and the soon to be ex-wife. Mix thoroughly with a semi-psycho cop (and his semi-psycho son), a nigh-on catatonic school mate, a well meaning principal, a priest with the onset of dementia, and many more supporting cast members.
These are three-dimensional characters we care about. We know they are three-dimensional because even when we dislike a character we come to understand and tolerate some part of them, and even the ones we like have a part that we really don’t want to see. And Russo tells the story in a way that silently captures the reader. This is not showy writing (neither florid passages nor slam/dash excitement); it is quality writing that does its job without distracting the reader.
And, in case you haven’t gotten the thrust of this review, Empire Falls is an excellent book.
But so what? I could say that about many books.
I think the thing that differentiates Empire Falls from other books is how Richard Russo is a master at character development. Empire Falls is the story of Miles Roby, a forty-something future divorcee who struggles as a manager of a local greasy spoon. Living in small-town Empire Falls, everyone knows his business: that his wife left him for the owner of the local health club, that the wealthy Mrs. Whiting holds Miles's future in the palm of her hand, that his daughter is struggling with high school, that he is a nice guy with a grumpy father, meddlesome town sheriff and enterprising brother. So many characters - but by the time the novel is over, Russo depicts them all completely. You really get to know them over the course of the 500 pages.
Another interesting aspect of Empire Falls is the mini-crescendos that occur throughout the story. Each tiny apex springs up every few chapters, until the last 50 pages when you get the "mack daddy" twist. The plot movement flowed liked a good TV drama, which is probably why HBO decided to adapt this novel into a mini-series.
Overall, I enjoyed Empire Falls, and I look forward to reading more of Richard Russo's other books.
The Empire Grill is actually owned by Francine Whiting, wealthy widow of textile magnate C.B. Whiting. Francine holds a strange power of Miles, having made vague promises that the grill would become his upon her death. And it turns out Mrs. Whiting has exerted power of Miles most of his life. Why would Mrs. Whiting care about Miles? How did their lives become intertwined? As Miles goes about his daily routine, the answers to these questions gradually become clear.
The novel unfolds at a slow pace, with Russo first painting detailed portraits of all the major characters. Then there are occasional chapters in which Miles remembers events from his past. These episodes are retold from Miles' point of view at the time. Memories of a childhood vacation, or of learning to drive, are described with the perspective of a child, who may not always understand the intricacies of adult relationships or of "real life." Yet it's through these episodes that the reader begins to see how and why the Roby and Whiting families have become intertwined.
While Miles' relationship with Mrs. Whiting provides the central tension in the novel, there are several equally rich sub-plots that are explored in similar depth. The residents of Empire Falls have grown up there together; high school friendships and rivalries play out in adulthood. And for Tick, that cycle is only just beginning, as she learns to navigate the sometimes painful paths of adolescent relationships.
Reading Empire Falls, I began to feel as if I knew these people. I found myself thinking about them when I wasn't reading; they were very real to me and will likely linger in my memory for some time.
Picture of a decaying Maine town, expertly drawn. A sense of fatalism runs through the book--not a happy and uplifting read, but powerful. Nobody does depressed small NE towns better than Russo.
The story revolves around the economically depressed, inland Maine town of Empire Falls and the various characters residing there. Our main character is Miles Roby, a college graduate who was sucked back into the dying town, despite being raised and pushed to do better. Miles is in the midst of an unpleasant divorce and struggles to raise his teenage daughter while managing the town’s diner for the leading citizen of the town, in hopes that he will inherit upon her death (as he has been promised). Full of clichés and stereotypes, the story works nevertheless as a study on human nature, from numerous perspectives.
Being a resident of economically depressed South Arkansas, I can relate to many of the characters and the economic status of Empire Falls. Our landscape is dotted with many Empire Falls, previously prosperous communities, whose driving economic forces have disappeared, leaving the towns to slowly wither away, leaving little or no opportunity for the youth, without abandoning their heritage or foundations.
As stated before, this is a perfectly pleasant read that begins strong before hitting a lull midway through. The final third of the book, picks up pace however, with several major plot twists and engaging action.
I really enjoyed this novel about motivation and determination (and the lack thereof). Empire Falls is a dying small Maine town where the industry that built it is long gone, leaving behind only those who are either too stubborn or too lazy to move on to some place better (both literally and figuratively). There were some nice twists and turns in the narration, but the character development is what shines in this novel. It's about people and these characters feel like real people with real frailties, internal struggles, and petty behaviors. It's a depressing novel about broken dreams and how people deal with them (via resignation or anxiety).
It is an engrossing, meaty read. It is a great, old-fashioned yarn, by which I mean it has a strong, coherent plot; fully-developed characters; drama; a reasonable tempo; and more than a few thought-provoking ideas. Thoroughly entertaining.
A gorgeously paced and constructed novel. It weaves in and out of the past, with characters that are very different from one another, with very different motivations and needs.
I loved the way, in the middle of a conversation, the author can look into the character for several paragraphs without it disrupting the flow of the story at all.
This novel richly deserves all the plaudits.
Past that though the novel was mostly focused and seen through the point of view of the sympathetic, though passive, Miles Roby, who runs the Empire Grill diner for the EVIL rich woman. I liked the loving relationship with his 16-year old daughter, Tick; I found that refreshing given so much "literary fiction" is focused on dysfunctional, indifferent or even just evil parents. I didn't like how little gray there is to be found in Russo's characterizations though. That's particularly evident in Miles' ex-wife; there are hints in the bare facts of the marriage and her life that could create reader sympathy for Janine, but when we turn to her point of view, she's a one-dimensional bimbo bitch: a walking stereotype who dumps her husband for a jerk because he gives her great sex.
There are some lovely insights and memorable lines in this novel: about religion, family, small-town life. There is also some winning humor leavening the bleak portrait of this dying town--particularly whenever Miles' father Max shows up. However, I did feel bogged down at times--especially in the five flashback chapters (written in hard-to-read italics).
I might have rated this novel higher, but I found the ending completely unsatisfying on multiple levels, even before the even more unsatisfying epilogue (done almost completely in hard-to-read italics).
3 Settings where it took place or characters you met:
1. Setting: Empire Falls, Maine, not too long ago but not present day
2. Miles Roby—The quintessential "nice guy," Miles has been working at the Empire Grill for more than 20 years—a fact that would have killed his mother Grace if she hadn't died of cancer years before. Divorced and still pining for his long ago crush, Miles's life centers around his daughter Tick, whose passage through high school is anything but easy.
3. Francine Whiting—The richest woman in town, Francine Whiting seemingly controls every aspect of town life. Yet her interest in Miles seems to go beyond casual—causing Miles to look to his past to find out what binds the Roby and Whiting families together.
4 Things you liked and/or disliked about it:
1. I liked how Russo takes his time developing the characters. Although the story is told primarily through Miles's eyes, we also get to know his ex-wife Janine, Tick, his brother David, his father Max, his neighbor and nemesis Jimmy Minty and a host of other residents who populate the town. My personal favorite was Miles's father Max, who was so laughably awful and foul and direct that you just gotta love him.
2. I liked how Russo lets the story develop slowly before letting it rip loose. At points, I wasn't sure if anything was going to happen or if the book was simply a portrait of small town America. In many ways, the book was like a roller coaster. There is a slow steady upward climb until you reach the top of the hill and come flying down the other side, dizzy from the speed and twists and turns.
3. I liked how Russo weaves several plot lines together to create a rich tapestry of stories. We explore Miles's childhood and his mother's secrets, Tick's difficulties at school and her attempt to reach out to a troubled boy, and the tragic story of Francine Whiting's daughter Cindy. Interwoven with these primary story lines are countless little moments that bring into focus the other residents of the town.
4. I liked the depth and breadth of the book. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 2002, and I think it is worthy of the honor. In many ways, it is an "epic" novel that keeps it focus tightly on one little town while demonstrating that every small town and every regular person has a story worth telling.
5 Stars or less for your rating?
I'm giving the book 4.5 stars. Give yourself time to read this book; it isn't a book to be rushed through. Be patient as you get to know the residents of Empire Falls and learn their stories. You'll find the the characters will stay with you long after reading. And unlike many "important" prize-winning books, Empire Falls is very readable, accessible and understandable. It is filled with sadness, humor, love, passion, hate, selfishness and all the other emotions that make up all of our lives. The fact that I can recall almost all of the characters names and the plot lines without looking them up even though I read the book at the beginning of January should tell you something!
Overall, Empire Falls was a decent read, but I have a feeling this ballooned style is indicative of Russo. That makes me really hesitant to jump in again. Maybe I will someday, but I'm certainly in no rush.
This was on my audible wishlist for a while and because of the nature of the mixed reviews I was hesitant to start it. Especially that it is a 20-hour narrative. But, since my effort to read new authors and books outside of my usual genres has been pretty successful, I decided to give it a go. During the time it took to listen to it all, I found out it won the Pulitzer for 2002 and so probably some of its praise was well-deserved. It turned out to be a fair assessment. It isn’t perfect, but I think it accomplishes what it sets out to accomplish. That is to tell the tale of a man in the middle, family secrets that really aren’t and the meaning of small-town power.
It is primarily a character-driven book and the plot, where it becomes important, is more of a let’s-see-what-happens-next variety rather than one where there is a definitive goal or outcome to be achieved. Mostly the story revolves around Miles Roby who is a well-meaning bumbler of a man and while he doesn’t generate any strong emotion for me, he was someone to root for. I didn’t feel strongly about him in any way and it mirrors his own view of himself and his circumstances. Until the very end, Miles never seemed to feel enough about his own life to run it on his own terms. He felt a duty to live for others; his mother, Mrs. Whiting, his daughter and Empire Falls itself.
Besides Miles, another focus character is Tick, his daughter. I liked the way she put her decisions together, admitting that maybe she doesn’t know everything yet, but also is pretty sure of the things she does know. Like many mother-daughter-grandmother relationships, she is closer to the elder of the two and holds her mother in contempt for her relationship with the sliver fox, and can you blame her?, I mean, please. She hasn’t yet recognized her parents as people first, parents second.
At first, the frenetic ending seemed rushed, but then I realized that it was brewing for quite some time. Mrs. Whiting, for me, became harder and harder to like as I at first did, and her heartless treatment of everyone around her got to be disgusting. Janine’s capitulation to what she thinks she really needs turns out to be not so wonderful. Miles gets into it with Jimmy Minty. Tick gets out of it with his son, Zach, but Zach’s athletic career has taken a detour into unsportsmanlike conduct and bad public opinion. The missing grandmother and finally, John’s descent into violence bring the crescendo to a roar. There’s so much more to this novel than what I’ve described here and so I can’t really do it justice. The characters and their situations will remain in my mind for a while yet and that for me, is a mark of a good book and a good reading experience.