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Empire Falls Paperback – April 12, 2002
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From The New Yorker
Miles Roby is a typical Russo hero: wry, unlucky in love and money, and just a little bit smarter than the people who populate his run-down industrial town. In this case, the town is Empire Falls, Maine, where Miles manages a restaurant that serves as a kind of meeting hall for the novel's large cast of characters. There's David, Miles's recovering-alcoholic brother; Walt, the health-club entrepreneur who has stolen Miles's estranged wife; Tick, Miles's precocious, befuddled teen-age daughter; and Francine Whiting, the rich widow who runs everything. Russo is preoccupied with the death of a certain version of the American dream, but his belief in the power of comedy—sometimes low, sometimes high—rescues his work from pathos and elevates it into the realm of literature.
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker
“Rich, humorous, elegantly constructed . . . Easily Mr. Russo’s most seductive book thus far.”–The New York Times
“Russo writes with a warm, vibrant humanity.... A stirring mix of poignancy, drama and comedy.” —The Washington Post
“Russo is one of the best novelists around.” –The New York Times Book Review
“The history of American literature may show that Richard Russo wrote the last great novel of the 20th century.” –Christian Science Monitor
“Nobody does small-town life better than Richard Russo.” –Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Top customer reviews
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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.
Still (and I won't give the ending away), Russo sets up all his characters with a kind of warm and comic understatement, and then, wow, he subjects them to a shockingly violent and disturbing ending. Two sweet and calm protagonists are sitting in a hospital room, discussing the weather, basically, while they hear the sound of ambulance sirens and emergency doctors outside their room, but they haven't a clue as to the horror that awaits them.
The proportions do feel awry. In a Jim Lehrer newshour interview, Russo was asked, Did you mean to do this, and his reply was that he knew some violence was coming in the plot, but he didn't know where it would come from or who would be its victims. I can conclude from this only that he wanted to subject this humane set of characters -- the fry cook, the busboy, the hostess of the Empire Grill, their sons and daughter, their estranged husbands and wives -- to the ultimate test. Who will survive?
This is the question of the novel, but it didn't need to be. A comedy of manners morphs into an Elizabethan tragedy, with all the associated blood and gore. A warm and understated story is put under the microscope of the ultimate test. Thus, the final pages of the book feel forced. Still, *Empire Falls* is well worth reading. Even its flaws are clarifying and revealing. Russo is my find of the year for a great novelist. Check out "Straight Man" as well -- an even more appealing and less apocalyptic book.