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Empire Falls Paperback – April 12, 2002
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Like most of Richard Russo's earlier novels, Empire Falls is a tale of blue-collar life, which itself increasingly resembles a kind of high-wire act performed without the benefit of any middle-class safety nets. This time, though, the author has widened his scope, producing a comic and compelling ensemble piece. There is, to be sure, a protagonist: fortysomething Miles Roby, proprietor of the local greasy spoon and the recently divorced father of a teenage daughter. But Russo sets in motion a large cast of secondary characters, drawn from every social stratum of his depressed New England mill town. We meet his ex-wife Janine, his father Max (another of Russo's cantankerous layabouts), and a host of Empire Grill regulars. We're also introduced to Francine Whiting, a manipulative widow who owns half the town--and who takes a perverse pleasure in pointing out Miles's psychological defects.
Miles does indeed have a tendency to take it on the chin. (At one point he alludes to his own "natural propensity for shit-eating.") And his role as Mr. Nice Guy thrusts him into all sorts of clashes with his not-so-nice contemporaries, even as the reader patiently waits for him to blow his top. It would be impossible to summarize Russo's multiple plot lines here. Suffice it to say that he touches on love and marriage, lust and loss and small-town economics, with more than a soupçon of class resentment stirred into the broth. This is, in a sense, an epic of small and large frustrations: "After all, what was the whole wide world but a place for people to yearn for their heart's impossible desires, for those desires to become entrenched in defiance of logic, plausibility, and even the passage of time, as eternal as polished marble." Yet Russo's comedic timing keeps the novel from collapsing into an orgy of breast-beating, and his dialogue alone--snappy and natural and efficiently poignant--is sufficient cause to put Empire Falls on the map. --Bob Brandeis --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Publishers Weekly
In his biggest, boldest novel yet, the much-acclaimed author of Nobody's Fool and Straight Man subjects a full cross-section of a crumbling Maine mill town to piercing, compassionate scrutiny, capturing misfits, malefactors and misguided honest citizens alike in the steady beam of his prose. Wealthy, controlling matriarch Francine Whiting lives in an incongruous Spanish-style mansion across the river from smalltown Empire Falls, dominated by a long-vacant textile mill and shirt factory, once the center of her husband's family's thriving manufacturing dominion. In his early 40s, passive good guy Miles Roby, the son of Francine's husband's long-dead mistress, seems helpless to escape his virtual enslavement as longtime proprietor of the Whiting-owned Empire Grill, the town's most popular eatery, which Francine has promised to leave him when she dies. Miles's wife, Janine, is divorcing him and has taken up with an aging health club entrepreneur. In her senior year in high school, their creative but lonely daughter, Tick, is preoccupied by her parents' foibles and harassed by the bullying son of the town's sleazy cop who, like everyone else, is a puppet of the domineering Francine. Struggling to make some sense of her life, Tick tries to befriend a boy with a history of parental abuse. To further complicate things, Miles's brother, David, is suspected of dealing marijuana, and their rascally, alcoholic father is a constant annoyance. Miles and David's secret plan to open a competing restaurant runs afoul of Francine just as tragedy erupts at the high school. Even the minor members of Russo's large cast are fully fleshed, and forays into the past lend the narrative an extra depth and resonance. When it comes to evoking the cherished hopes and dreams of ordinary people, Russo is unsurpassed. (May)Forecast: A 100,000-copy first printing of this impressive effort would probably fly off shelves even without the support of a 16-city author tour, national advertising and promotion, national media appearances, bookmarks, posters and a reading group guide. Returning with a flourish to familiar smalltown territory after his foray into academia with Straight Man, Russo could make a splash on big-city bestseller lists.
Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Miles Roby is the central character, living his depressing middle-age life flipping burgers at the local diner, inexorably tethered to Empire Falls in spite of himself. Surrounding Miles are a whole cast of quintessential small-town characters, including his high school daughter, Tick; his soon-to-be-ex-wife, Janine and his abrasive father, Max.
Russo digs deep into each of the characters, fleshing them out with carefully crafted prose and realistic dialogue. Although everyone in this close-knit community ostensibly knows each other quite well, there are secrets that, once revealed, could change everything. This is the case for Miles, whose own late mother remains a mystery and a source of deep-seated heartache.
Empire Falls is the kind of book that reminds you of the truth that each individual harbors his or her own private pain and yearning, and that these internal motivations can be confounding even to close loved ones.
There's certainly a lot of depth here and I appreciate that. I usually love character-driven novels most of all. But this one is bordering on too dense and too detailed for my liking, often requiring me to force myself to power through it.
This is clearly a universally loved book, so I don't want to deter anyone from reading it. It's ultimately satisfying and edifying, but there's a lot of detail to slog through along the way.
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.
The story is told through the perspective of one family, broken as they are. Miles Roby and Janine have split up. She is marrying someone else after getting caught having an affair. They have a 16-year-old daughter, Tick, who is like all teenage girls--loveable, hateful, a know-it-all, insecure and still a child at heart. They live in Empire Falls, Maine, a gray and gritty town that has fallen on hard times after the shirt factory and mills have closed.
This Pulitzer Prize-winning novel starts off slowly--almost excruciatingly so--and then picks up and takes off, much like a car idling through a parade and then zooming away at 80 mph. It's a story of dreams and nightmares, of what we do to protect our children and the horrors that sometimes happen that are beyond our control. Plain and simple: Author Richard Russo is a genius.
P.S. It's worth reading "Empire Falls" if for no other reason than the driver's ed scene about halfway through the book. I laughed so hard I had to stop reading. And then every time I thought about that scene for the next few days I would laugh again.