Book Review: Empire Falls by Richard Russo (4/5)

22 Aug

Way back in 2013, I had a Page-a-Day Book calendar. I got a huge number of recommendations from that thing and it kick-started by Goodreads TBR and is very responsible for how long the thing now is. This title was one of those recommendations and part of me wishes I still had it so I could read the blurb that convinced me to add it to my TBR and later buy it from a used book store. Thanks to my readers who picked it on WWW Wednesday as my next book!

Cover Image via Goodreads

Empire Falls by Richard Russo

Summary from Goodreads:

Dexter County, Maine, and specifically the town of Empire Falls, has seen better days, and for decades, in fact, only a succession from bad to worse. One by one, its logging and textile enterprises have gone belly-up, and the once vast holdings of the Whiting clan (presided over by the last scion’s widow) now mostly amount to decrepit real estate. The working classes, meanwhile, continue to eke out whatever meager promise isn’t already boarded up.

Miles Roby gazes over this ruined kingdom from the Empire Grill, an opportunity of his youth that has become the albatross of his daily and future life. Called back from college and set to work by family obligations—his mother ailing, his father a loose cannon—Miles never left home again. Even so, his own obligations are manifold: a pending divorce; a troubled younger brother; and, not least, a peculiar partnership in the failing grill with none other than Mrs. Whiting. All of these, though, are offset by his daughter, Tick, whom he guides gently and proudly through the tribulations of adolescence.

A decent man encircled by history and dreams, by echoing churches and abandoned mills, by the comforts and feuds provided by lifelong friends and neighbors, Miles is also a patient, knowing guide to the rich, hardscrabble nature of Empire Falls: fathers and sons and daughters, living and dead, rich and poor alike. Shot through with the mysteries of generations and the shattering visitations of the nation at large, it is a social novel of panoramic ambition, yet at the same time achingly personal. In the end, Empire Falls reveals our worst and best instincts, both our most appalling nightmares and our simplest hopes, with all the vision, grace and humanity of truly epic storytelling.

In a rough sense, this book reminded me of The Casual Vacancy. The story is about a whole town and the people have their own stories and their own quirks. The difference here is how much each story overlapped with the others. For example, Otto overlapped with Tick and Miles. I liked that there was a true focus on the Roby family which gave me a rallying point and helped me ignore plotlines that would turn out to be unimportant. I thought it was very well done.

I liked the depiction of small-town life. Janine was particularly despicable which made her fun. I loved hating her and Walt. I adored Tick and her struggles and how she dealt with them. They were each well developed and very different which is important and refreshing in a novel of this structure. I liked that we saw a lot of different backgrounds and ages in the book and got to see the problems they had individually and as a group.

Tick was my favorite. I liked her sass and I understood where it came from. She obviously blamed her mother for the divorce and for expelling her beloved father from her life. Honestly, how could you not blame Jenine? I didn’t think she redeemed herself and I don’t think she ever will. Tick tried to avoid the problems, a very appropriate response given her age and I liked that Russo didn’t try to make her feel older than she was.

I think Tick’s story was really relatable and that was part of why I enjoyed it. I haven’t been a parent, drunkard, or grandparent so the other narrating characters were less relatable to me. I wasn’t a popular kid in high school, either. Somehow, I landed a cute boyfriend who was condescending and rude. It was oddly parallel and I’m glad Tick was strong and made new friends, even trying to reach out to someone who needed help. Her heart was in the right place.

Richard Russo
Image from Authors Guild

I know this is terrible, but reading Jenine and Walt’s marriage fall apart was oddly satisfying. I disliked her character so much that seeing her find out how he was being untruthful about his age and money was great. He was good in bed, but that was about it. Jenine was so quick to judge everyone that it backfired on her.

The ending bothered me a bit so I want to talk about it. Skip this paragraph to avoid spoilers. A lot went into building up John Voss as an outsider but the ending seemed too predictable. I would have liked to see Tick get into his head, his world, a little bit more before he fell apart. It seems like he had some kind of break but we don’t see it and it’s hard to imagine how it was triggered without knowing him better. He’s one character I would have liked to get into a bit more.

More spoilers here! This book was published in 2001, two years after the Columbine High School shootings. I feel fairly sure that Russo was thinking about that tragedy when he was writing this book. How could someone in a small town become so angry that they would do something so violent? We’re lead through a world where John Voss becomes that person. It’s scary to see it happen and it makes it obvious how small actions can lead to someone choosing that path.

Writer’s Takeaway: On the surface, this seems like a book that would have too many characters but Russo handles them well. We really focused on the Whitings, Mintys, and Robys. Of course, other characters come into play, but always in a way that links them between these major characters. This helped the book maintain focus while telling a story about a town and not a person. I think this is a hard balance to strike and Russo does an amazing job.

I enjoyed the book and the characters a lot. I’d read another Russo book to be sure. Four out of Five Stars.

Until next time, write on.

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Related Posts:
Richard Russo- Empire Falls | The Pulitzer Project
Empire Falls by Richard Russo | Book Club Mom
Empire Falls | Just Browsing


4 Responses to “Book Review: Empire Falls by Richard Russo (4/5)”

  1. agnesmack August 22, 2017 at 6:14 PM #

    I love this book and most of his others. As you said, he has a knack for describing life in a small town.


    • Sam August 22, 2017 at 6:56 PM #

      Good to hear! I’ll have to keep an eye out for another of his books in the future. Happy reading!


  2. seedysyntax November 12, 2017 at 9:30 PM #

    I agree with your conclusions Russo does a fantastic job balancing such a large cast. Event the town ends up feeling like one of his characters. I appreciate the development in his books. Great review!


    • Sam November 13, 2017 at 9:53 AM #

      Thank you! I get nervous with big casts but you can tell he’s an experienced writer. Happy reading!


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