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Empire Falls (2001)

by Richard Russo

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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8,419179836 (3.95)422
Milo Roby tries to hold his family together while working at the Empire Grill in the once-successful logging town of Empire Falls, Maine, with his partner, Mrs. Whiting, who is the heir to a faded logging and textile legacy.
  1. 40
    Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (2810michael)
  2. 20
    The Last Picture Show by Larry McMurtry (browner56)
    browner56: Although separated by half a century and half the country, Thalia, Texas and Empire Falls, Maine could be the same dreary and decaying small town.
  3. 10
    Storming Heaven by Denise Giardina (readerbabe1984)
  4. 10
    Staggerford by Jon Hassler (readerbabe1984)
  5. 21
    Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Ann Burns (readerbabe1984, readerbabe1984)

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Showing 1-5 of 170 (next | show all)
Now and then, you find a book that manages to enthrall you so deeply that you simply know you will return to it over and over again, perhaps to embrace the writing style, perhaps to meet these characters again or perhaps to simply let yourself be immersed by the wonderful atmosphere of that specific book.

Empire Falls is such a book. I loved every single page of this novel, even though 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 that will make you feel as if you have relocated to Empire Falls, Maine, this curious little town with its huge story.

It is difficult to explain the events in "Empire Falls", considering the huge amount of characters involved in this novel. We accompany our main character, Miles Roby, on an insightful journey through his life, but Russo also constantly delves into the minds of different characters by changing the point of view to another character. All the different narrative arcs find their centerpiece in Miles Roby, a middle-aged, divorced father who runs the Empire Grill, a greasy spoon diner. We meet his ex-wife Janine Roby, who has developed a rather selfish attitude since her divorce and whose main concerns are now her weight and her social status. Their smart daughter Tick is confronted with her own problems in school, where she meets John Voss, her awkward, introverted classmate. 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.

Richard Russo introduces us to an enormous amount of other characters as well, making it appear that it is rather easy to lose track of who is actually who and which character has which characteristics. 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. Russo spends a lot of time on creating realistic characters, and he does more than just succeed: He creates characters you are unlikely to ever forget.

“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. ”
For me personally, Russo's prose was thoughtful and memorable, but he also found the perfect balance between humor and seriousness. At times, you will not be able to stop laughing thanks to Russo's subtle humor. At other times, you will start wondering about subjects you never thought even existed. Even now, after having finished this book, I can open it on a random page and find a new aspect to think about. 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. All of these characters might well be your neighbors, that's how realistically Russo portrays them. He ultimately builds up to a thrilling climax, which leads everything to a satisfying ending which stays close to the core of the characters and the town.

Many relationships in this novel are defined by either resentment or kindness, but all of these relationships find themselves tested in the course of the book. Each character has to explore themes such as responsibility or, most importantly, humanity, which is essentially what the book is about in my opinion. What makes us human? What defines humanity? Can we call ourselves human in spite of all our sins?

The blurb of the edition I own describes the novel with "characters who will disarm you, a plot with as many twists and falls as the Knox River [the river which flows through Empire Falls] itself, and an ending that will make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck." I couldn't agree more. Even when I put this book aside, I could never resist returning to it in my thoughts. And let's take a moment to appreciate that beautiful cover (at least in the edition which I have linked my review to).

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. But this was only my personal experience, so if you intend to read this novel, don't get your expectations too high. Russo's prose is so simple and yet beautiful that I was constantly tempted to reread chapters immediately. 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.

“And there comes a time in your life when you realize that if you don't take the opportunity to be happy, you may never get another chance again.”
I can honestly say that Russo's novel changed my life to some extent (eben though I recognize how dramatic that sounds). 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. Though it should be mentioned that if you usually only read fantasy, sci-fi, thrillers or romance novels, you may not enjoy this very much.
For readers of literary/adult/realistic fiction (or however this genre may be called), I'd call this novel a safe bet. You won't be disappointed.

* * * * * * *

If you are still interested, I am going to provide you with some further information on the TV mini-series which was closely adapted from Russo's novel in 2005.

The show is capable of portraying a very similar atmosphere to the one depicted in the novel. The series shines with a stellar cast: Ed Harris, Helen Hunt, Paul Newman, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robin Wright, Joanne Woodward, Kate Burton, William Fichtner and Aidan Quinn. Over the course of 200 minutes, the series depicts every major event from the novel in a very similar fashion, and finds the correct balance between its own choices and the book's defaults. There is not much wrong with this series, except perhaps that - just like the novel itself - I did not want it to end once I started watching it.

You are immediately swept into the atmosphere of the story, and fabulous actors allow to instantly make all of these characters appear interesting. Paul Newman puts all his acting weight into his performance as Max Roby, a role very different from his iconic roles such as Butch Cassidy, Henry Gondorff or Cold Hand Luke. Ed Harris shines as Miles Roby, a role in which he is finally allowed to play more than just the antagonist (though Harris never fails to do so in a convincing manner) or the minor character his roles are often treated as in many movies. Robin Wright gracefully makes the role of Grace her own, though she still only presents us with small nuances of what she is actually capable of. Those three actors stood out in the most memorable way for me personally, but in the end, there was not a single performance which disappointed me.

Ultimately, I'd highly recommend watching this series ... if you have read the book. The series works well on its own, but it works even better after having read the book before. ( )
  Councillor3004 | Sep 1, 2022 |
Found this book in the Little Free Library, brought it home and wolfed it down. The central character is Miles Roby, the long-suffering and mild manager of the Empire Grill in Empire Falls, Maine. He is surrounded by a cast of characters (in the sense of, "he's a real character") drawn with affectionate humor by Richard Russo. This book is terrifically humane and clearly from a previous era. Today's fiction is mostly far more bleak and disturbing.

I read A Prayer for Owen Meany so long ago that I'm cautious about saying this, but Empire Falls reminds me of my memory of that book in its humor, poignancy, unhurried pace, and gradual build up to an inevitable but somehow still surprising climax. ( )
  GwenRino | Aug 26, 2022 |
...diverting one's attention from the past was not the same as envisioning and embarking upon a future. On the other hand, if the past were razed, the slate wiped clean, maybe fewer people would confuse it with the future, and that at least would be something.

Empire Falls is a small town in Maine, and Miles Roby is a small town guy who once dreamed of being something more than a short-order cook running the town matriarch’s diner. How he ended up in this dead-end job and how his past controls his future are at the base of this complex tale of regret and revenge, and while dreams of deliverance from a predictable life might be enough to make a good tale, that is only the tip of the iceberg for Richard Russo.

One thing Russo does very well is create characters. He gives us Miles, a sweet-tempered guy who is just lacks the excitement to stir the hearts of most of the women in his life; Mrs. Whiting, the power-crazed matriarch who made me think, oddly enough, of Mrs. Haversham, controlling and dictating from her petty little throne; Max, Miles whacky father who is a study in never letting feelings get in the way of what you want; and Tick, Miles daughter who is fighting her own way through the angst of adolescence. There are myriad other characters, who are just as real and concrete as these, and at least two who are ghosts from the past but seem to be driving the future.

This book is complex and forces you to ask a lot of painful questions. How much of our lives are dictated to us by things we don’t understand or know but fail to comprehend the meaning of? How much of what we see as our “fate” is really a result of our own choices? How much is required of us to atone for a wrong we have done? Why do we choose the easy path instead of pursuing our heart’s desire, and when we do can anyone else be truly blamed for that? What do we owe to one another? And, finally, Where is God in all of this?

It pleased him to imagine God as someone like his mother, someone beleaguered by too many responsibilities, too dog-tired to monitor an energetic boy every minute of the day, but who, out of love and fear for his safety, checked in on him whenever she could. Was this so crazy? Surely God must have other projects besides Man just as parents had responsibilities other than raising their children?

The Pulitzer Committee got this one right. I had only read one other Russo before this, [b:That Old Cape Magic|6303733|That Old Cape Magic|Richard Russo|https://images.gr-assets.com/books/1320442735s/6303733.jpg|6488344], and found it interesting but not smashing. I’m glad I wasn’t put off from reading more, because this would have been a terrible read to have missed.
( )
  mattorsara | Aug 11, 2022 |
I just reread Empire Falls in preparation for a discussion I was leading. I’ve decided it is one of my favorite books of all time. Richard Russo is masterful in depicting a range of human conditions. He is an expert at describing small towns and people’s connections to the places they call home. In this story, Miles Roby feels and acts stuck in Empire Falls. He never finished college since dropping out to care for his dying mother. He has been running the Empire Grill, owned by Mrs. Whiting, who controls the community, the Grill, and Miles. Miles is also going through a divorce and trying to remain an active parent to his high school daughter, Tick.

Miles is experiencing a midlife crisis, and his angst parallels that of the mill town in Maine at the beginning of the 2000s that is suffering from wanting to remain unchanged by technology and cultural progress. The river that divides his hometown and also conveniently separates the rich from the poor in Empire Falls has been altered for the convenience of the Whiting family and provides a backdrop for depicting diverse living conditions and humans’ desire for power and control over nature and each other. A quote that will remain with me is, “Men of vision had been improving upon God’s designs for the better part of two centuries, and there was no reason not to correct this one.” (p. 25).

Russo includes thought-provoking plot points related to municipal workers of Empire Falls. Jimmy Minty, the local cop and bully, has a long history with Miles and the Whiting family. Some of the behaviors of the school teachers and the high school principal are despicable. Miles’s connection with the Catholic church and the priests play a critical role in Miles's inability to grow and move away from the provincial thinking of his family. All of these characters have multiple generation relationships with the power structure in Empire Falls and the steadiness of issues over time creates a metaphoric paralysis for many community members.

Miles is driven by fear and guilt. He regularly interacts with his ex-wife, her new lover, and members of the Whiting family, including Cindy Whiting, a woman who has been in love with him since high school. In descriptions of Miles’s ongoing relationships with his brother and father and flashbacks to his late mother, Russo develops some complex characters and appeals to one’s heartstrings. Following are some of the themes and concepts that gave me pause as the author alludes to them through the story’s plot and characters:
    Class bound fatalism
    Confusion of past, present, and future
    Corruption in business and time-honored institutions
    Crippling conditions
    Decency vs. passivity
    Duty to take care of those who need it.
    Forgiveness: Who forgives in this story?
    Free will
    Happiness: Does everyone deserve it?
    Home: Is it a place?
    Human nature
    Ignorant Teachers
    Loyalty: to family? Community?
    Money: staying or moving from its source
    Nature: Can it be controlled?
    Overly responsible personality
    Paralysis of mind and body
    Parental dread
    political influence: local
    Provincial life
    Public nuisances
    Small towns
    Social hierarchy: Climbing the social ladder
    Uneducated thinking they have outsmarted the rich and educated
    Unreconciled relationships
    Weight: both concrete and figurative

https://quipsandquotes.net/2022/07/18/empire-falls-by-richard-russo/ ( )
  LindaLoretz | Jul 18, 2022 |
Russo travels his own well-plowed territory here. After enjoying [Nobody's Fool] quite a bit, I decided to try another, but was disappointed to learn that Russo doesn't stray too far from his own tropes. Yes, we have the underbelly of the work-a-day and ne'er-do-wells; check, the rich and cold and manipulative heiress who runs/owns the town; and, yup, the lovable, if stunted hero. But the process of pounding on that dolt again and again and again quickly loses interest. The only critical remark I wrote about essentially the same character in [Nobody's Fool] is that the plot strained credibility as the hits piled up for him and he went back for more. if anything, Miles Roby, the punching bag this time, is less credible and imminently more tiring. By the time the big final blow comes, you can hear it galloping from miles away. Read this one, or one of the others, but don't read another one.

3 bones!!! ( )
  blackdogbooks | Mar 6, 2022 |
Showing 1-5 of 170 (next | show all)
Russo's command of his story is unerring, but his manner is so unassuming that his mastery is easy to miss. He satisfies every expectation without lapsing into predictability, and the last section of the book explodes with surprises that also seem, in retrospect, like inevitabilities. As the pace quickens and the disparate threads of the narrative draw tighter, you find yourself torn between the desire to rush ahead and the impulse to slow down.

Empire Falls, situated at a fictitious and unlovely bend of the Knox River, is the kind of place tourists from Boston or New York speed through en route to the mini-Martha's Vineyards of the Maine coast, perhaps stopping for lunch at a place like the Empire Grill and eavesdropping on the taciturn, wisecracking regulars. By the end of this novel, you'll know the town's geography like a native, and its tattered landmarks -- the Empire Grill, the old Whiting shirt factory, the architectural folly C. B. Whiting built across the river -- will be as vivid and as charged with metaphor as Salem's house of seven gables or the mansions of East Egg. You will also have had the good fortune to tour this unremarkable geography in the company of an amiable, witty raconteur who knows all the gossip and the local history as well as some pretty good jokes. Only after you've bought him a beer, shaken his hand and said goodbye will it occur to you that he's also one of the best novelists around.
added by WiJiWiJi | editNew York Times, A.O. Scott (Jun 24, 2001)
Russo's command of his story is unerring, but his manner is so unassuming that his mastery is easy to miss. He satisfies every expectation without lapsing into predictability, and the last section of the book explodes with surprises that also seem, in retrospect, like inevitabilities. As the pace quickens and the disparate threads of the narrative draw tighter, you find yourself torn between the desire to rush ahead and the impulse to slow down.
added by Nickelini | editNew York Times, A.O. Scott (Jun 24, 2001)

» Add other authors (7 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Richard Russoprimary authorall editionscalculated
Ven, Sandra van deTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Compared to the Whiting mansion in town, the house Charles Beaumont Whiting built a decade after his return to Maine was modest.
Some sins trail their own penance.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Milo Roby tries to hold his family together while working at the Empire Grill in the once-successful logging town of Empire Falls, Maine, with his partner, Mrs. Whiting, who is the heir to a faded logging and textile legacy.

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