Book Review: Empire Falls

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My God, he couldn’t help thinking, how terrible it is to be that age, to have emotions so near the surface that the slightest turbulence causes them to boil over. That, very simply, was what adulthood must be all about — acquiring the skill to bury things more deeply. Out of sight and, whenever possible, out of mind.

Empire Falls, by Richard Russo

There’s a certain subset of books that I’m fond of: those set in small communities in the United States, in a time before the ubiquity of technology today, in places where people know not only one another’s names but also their entire personal histories, and their parents’, and their grandparents’. I suppose you could say I’m nostalgic for something I’ve never experienced, and also fascinated by how small, close-knit communities functioned before the advent of such quick communication methods as we have today.

Empire Falls is an intricate study of this type of community in the fictional, titular, blue-collar town of Empire Falls, Maine. The story mainly revolves around Miles Roby, manager of the beaten-down Empire Grill, who could have carved out a life for himself elsewhere — but ends up living out his days in Empire Falls. Miles is the usual everyman character that the average reader can identify and sympathize with: decent, honorable, and clever, although a bit frustrating in his steadfastness.

For me, Empire Falls‘s biggest strength is its cast of characters. The inhabitants of Empire Falls encompass every stage of life, social status, and personality – each character is real but flawed. Many are unlikeable, but somehow relatably so. Janine, Miles’s ex-wife, is selfish and immature, but it’s not difficult to see how marriage to somewhat dull, slow-to-change Miles has made her so.

My favorite characters were Tick, Miles and Janine’s teenaged daughter, and Mrs. Whiting, the owner of the Empire Grill and many of Empire Falls’s other properties. Tick’s teenaged awkwardness, often at odds with her childish desire to do the right thing, makes her relatable, likeable, and real. I enjoyed Mrs. Whiting’s condescension, biting tongue, and sharp mind – although I enjoyed it in the way that I would never want to encounter someone like that in my own life. However, I felt that there could have been more of Mrs. Whiting in the novel. Although influential in the story due to her ownership of the Empire Grill and simply her power over the other characters and the town itself, Mrs. Whiting does not figure too prominently as a character. I would have loved to see more of her, and the contrast she provides to the character of Miles.

YES OR NO?: YES. I don’t have much to say about Empire Falls other than I would recommend it as an accurate, engaging study of small town America. Books that I find few faults with are the most difficult to write reviews for, to be honest. I’ll be sure to check out more of Russo’s works in the future.

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