Your ex-mother-in-law doesnt run the bar across the street from your diner. The stayers, about 37% of American adults who still live in or around the town they were born in, stay for family ties. A significant component of the story actually involves mover and stayer philosophy: when the main characters mother was dying from cancer, she implored him, more or less: Get out of this town; get out dont stay --- thats why I sent you away to college. Her family owns the now-abandoned shirt factory that almost everyone used to work in; she even owns the diner that the main character runs and she owns the bar that his mother-in-law runs. Not realizing the full story of how events fit together, even as an adult, the main character does not understand that the widow runs people as well as the town and that she is wreaking vengeance on him in subtle but vicious ways. The re-occurring Trump-like rumors born of desperation that the factory will re-open (as if Americans are going to start making shirts again for $2 an hour); the church closings due to population loss; the probably-gay priest; the desperation of the left-behind elderly like his father who have to borrow and scam people for beer money; a horrendous school violence incident. To her way of thinking, any man with no more sex drive than Miles Roby the main character possessed might better have just gone ahead and embraced celibacy and been done with it, instead of disappointing poor girls like herself. The old Alzheimer-prone priest thinks of the main characters father: hed always held Max Roby in the lowest possible esteem as a blasphemer, a shiftless charmer, a drinker and a general neer-do-well.
I havent read any other novel by Richard Russo, but starting on Empire Falls felt like going to a party where you dont know anybody, starting up a conversation with a stranger, and finding that you are kindred souls, ending up on the balcony talking and talking and talking about life, the universe and everything until the sun comes up. By following Miles Roby down memory lane, I have got to know not only the secret history of Empire Falls, but also the personal dramas of his friends and families. By the end of the story, I felt like I have also spend part of my life in a rundown industrial town (Ploiesti right now is nor exactly prosperous, not at the end of its tether either).
Miles is a good and decent man who did not always dream of flipping burgers and taking care of the grill, in fact at one time he had promising opportunities slated for his future. The vast majority of the real estate and by extension the job opportunities in Empire Falls are owned and controlled by the Whiting family or to be more precise, Francine Whiting. The real bounty here lay in the character development of the residents of Empire Falls that we largely come to know through Miles Roby. And such a wide cast of people, each saddled with their own histories, beliefs, resentments, weaknesses, dreams and strengths and real life struggles.
People speak of selfishness, but thats another folly, because of course theres no such thing." Ive been pondering this quote for some time now after having finished Richard Russos Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Empire Falls. Empire Falls centers on the lives of those characters that live in this small town of Maine. Both had been abandoned now for the better part of two decades, though their dark, looming shapes at the foot of the avenues gentle incline continued to draw the eye." It is here that we meet Miles Roby, manager of the Empire Grill. What fascinates me about small towns is the fact that many of its people really never get away. And yet, I found myself nearly holding my breath towards the end of the book; I was that entangled with the lives of the characters. What I came to realize in the end is that we should each grab hold of our dreams, take control of our circumstances, and in fact change the direction of that river.
The book follows the lives of Miles Roby and his family in the dying industrial town of Empire Falls, Maine. The town itself is beautifully described throughout as the book transpires over a school year - Miles' daughter Tick's senior year at Empire High.
Empire Falls is a close as you can get to a perfect novel. While I loved Miles, what is truly impressive is that Russo brings to life an entire town in entirely believable detail. He effortlessly moves from a scene at the grill, to a brief accounting of a newly arrived characters life, and back to the scene without ever making me feel like the story meandered. So much of the beauty of the book comes from Russos ability to build an entire town piece by piece, with POVs from characters that range in social standing and disposition, each serving to highlight another aspect of Empire Falls. Russo also makes profound and poignant statements in the novel that make for some of the most personally genuine writing Ive ever read. I loved the characters, the setting, and the overlapping pursuits, desires, and interactions of the township make for a novel that never once bored me through the entire read. The book is long, Ill give you that, but it is more patient than slow, and embracing that patience yielded one of the most rewarding reading experiences Ive had all year.
Miles Robey was on the verge of earning his college degree and escaping Empire Falls forever when he returned home to care for his dying mother and ended up working for Mrs. Whiting as the manager of the Empire Grill. His selfish wife Janine is divorcing Miles to marry health club owner Walt Comeau who likes to stop by the Empire Grill every afternoon to rub it in. The depiction of a small blue collar town slowly going under was done incredibly well from the opening that describes how Empire Falls has been ruled by the Whitings for generations and how heir C.B. went from his dream of wanting to be a poet and artist in Mexico to running the family business and marrying Francine. As far as the ending (view spoiler) I loved that Mrs. Whiting had essentially turned Miles into an indentured servant because of the affair his mother had with her husband. John Voss shooting the people in the high school was the kind of dramatic moment that it would take for Miles to make a big gesture like leaving Empire Falls to protect Tick.
I loved every single page of this book, and yet I know there are readers who would rip this book apart, saying things like "nothing ever happens" or "where is the plot?" If you actually plan to read this novel, you have to be prepared to find a book which focuses on character development more than anything else. Richard Russo, the author of this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, concentrates mainly on the huge cast of characters he introduces and develops throughout these 500 pages, as well as building an atmosphere which will make you feel as if you have relocated to Empire Falls, Maine, this curious little town with its huge story. We meet Miles' younger brother David, a chief cook and former alcoholic; as well as their difficult father Max and their late mother Grace through a number of flashbacks; we meet Janine's arrogant fiancé Walt Comeau, police officer Jimmy Minty who holds a grudge against Miles, his son Zack who has once been involved with Tick; and of course Francine Whiting, the widow of the wealthiest man of Empire Falls who now owns half of the town - and particularly Miles. However, Russo always manages to introduce his characters in a very memorable way, with every single minor character contributing an important part to the story line. No person is introduced without a reason, and they are all developed in a very balanced way: Goodhearted Miles Roby also has his dark sides, but antagonists such as Zack and Jimmy Minty or Walt Comeau never appear as stereotypical villains. Of course it is possible to detect a plot in this novel, but it's not the most important thing; in its essence, "Empire Falls" can be called a social study, exploring a small town to its very core and delving deep into everyone's secrets without causing their stories to feel far-fetched or excessively melodramatic. I should mention that perhaps I should hate this book rather than loving it; after all, I have not been able to motivate myself to read anything for about five weeks after finishing "Empire Falls" - I simply couldn't imagine to find something similarly good again. In addition, Russo tends to create complex sentences and releases a lot of information embedded into his sentences upon his readers, which is why you will have to read every chapter very carefully in order to understand the characters' conflicts and the background stories. His prose provides constant food for thoughts, he makes you overthink your own values and standards by pushing you towards questions like, "What would I do if I was in the same situation as this character?" Many other reviewers have already praised this novel, so I don't think I was able to add anything else to what they already wrote, but I certainly hope that Richard Russo will continue to receive attention for the masterful novel he created. The trailer for the TV series I linked in the next paragraph may give you a feeling for the novel's atmosphere and help you decide whether you'd appreciate reading this or not.
Plot-driven novels are a safer bet, but then youd miss out on an opportunity to really provoke your reader. This book encompasses what it must have been like (although Im only imagining here) to live in a small New England town suffering through a period of economic decay. Somehow Miles inspires hope in the reader, and Maxs frustrating personality actually serves to make a point (in addition to providing comic relief), which is that you dont actually have to take life so seriously.