They were standing at the rail, Grace gripping it with white fingers, until she took a deep breath and said, "I was wrong."

     He started to say something, but she shook her head, stopping him. "I was wrong when I said things were going to be different when we got back home," she said. "Nothing's going to change. Not one thing."

     He hoped she was right, but he feared she wasn't. On the dock below there was a man wearing a Red Sox cap, and seeing this caused Miles to remember that he'd forgotten his mitt. He could see it on the nightstand next to his bed back at the cottage. Right where he'd left it.

Empire Falls
Richard Russo

Hardcover: Published by Knopf on May 8, 2001, 496 pages (ISBN: 0679432477)
Softcover: Published by Vintage on April 12, 2002, 483 pages (ISBN: 0375726403)
2002 Pulitzer Prize winner - Fiction

Empire Falls ... where do I start? You know that feeling when you sit down to write about something that you thoroughly enjoyed, yet when you begin to write about it, all of the words seem to completely diminish the enjoyment and beauty of your experience, leaving what was majestic and insightful seeming tired and boring? That's the very quandary I face in writing about Empire Falls. It is the best novel I have read in ages, yet to discuss it leaves it seeming boring and flaccid.

At its core, Empire Falls is a wonderful character study focusing on the residents of a small town in Maine. Because of the fact that these people are small-town residents, they generally have what could be described as small-town values. Virtually all of the characters are strictly blue collar (with one notable exception), and most of them have spent their lives in Empire Falls. This creates an interesting dynamic, where all of the characters already know each other rather intimately at the start of the novel, and many of them share the same general problems in their lives.

Take Miles Roby, the central character of the novel, for example. In fact, let's just take a brief run-through of the major characters in the book.

c  h  a  r  a  c  t  e  r  s

The book generally revolves around Miles Roby, the proprietor of the Empire Grill. Miles' dead mother, Grace (who floats through the book like a shadow), worked hard to ensure Miles would get out of Empire Falls, away from the small-town life, and make a name for himself. Instead, when his mother lay dying, he came back to Empire Falls and eventually found himself at age 40, with a failed marriage and a teenage daughter. Miles is a thoughtful and courteous person who puts others before himself on a nearly constant basis, and without really realizing it, his good nature became his downfall.

Tick Roby is his teenage daughter, an intelligent young woman who happens to be near the bottom of her high school's social hierarchy. Tick quite often winds up being the moral compass in the book; her responses to people are very telling in terms of their deeper character. This is most true with Max Roby (who I'll mention more about in a moment), who she seems to adore even through his numerous character flaws.

Janine Comeau is Miles' ex-wife and easily one of the most shallow people in the novel, intentionally. She's superficially obsessed with herself to the point of alienating others and actually divorcing her husband (Miles) largely because of it, even though she later finds that he's her most dependable confidant. She is portrayed in a nearly comical fashion in many scenes, but underneath it all it becomes a relevant question whether or not she was justified in divorcing Miles.

Max Roby is Miles' father, who basically is painted as a petty crook who only looks out for himself early in the book, but eventually is drawn with enough lines that you can see the greater picture of the man by the end. In many ways, both Max and Miles are the characters of redemption in this book: Miles through what happens as the plot progresses, and Max through a careful revelation of what came before in his life.

After a while, however, you come to realize that there is another major character, perhaps the most important of all, who stands silent throughout the novel. Empire Falls herself overshadows everything; a town lost in its own past. It becomes clear in reading that indeed the town's past overshadows the present, and many of the events in the book are created out of events long since past.

Russo creates a number of additional characters, painting them skillfully but without the attention to detail given to the primary players, almost like the "details" added to a Bob Ross painting. No need to get into these now; the Whiting family's dominance of the town and John Voss's struggles can wait until you open the book.

p  l  o  t

Without delving too much into the realm of spoilers, the plot revolves around Miles' midlife crisis in a very poignant way. You see, Miles is like most men in that a midlife crisis is not about trying to feel young again; one look in the mirror makes that clear. Instead, the midlife crisis is merely that moment when you realize the path of your life is pretty much set in stone; you know that you're a long ways down that road toward retirement and it scares you. You second guess the choices you've made, particularly when you went against the advice of people early in your life. Sometimes, you even make an attempt to fix these choices.

It is this honest portrayal of Miles that makes the book not only work, but makes it into a gem. Miles has been running the Empire Grill, a little greasy thumb, for the last twenty years, ignoring the dying wishes of his mother, who wanted him to leave Empire Falls behind. The business is slowly failing, but it is being dangled along by a rich proprietor, Mrs. Whitting, who owns many of the businesses in Empire Falls, including the mills that have been shut down for quite a while.

Empire Falls is a victim in this book, a victim of businesses moving south to seek cheaper labor, leaving behind an empty shell of a town that is only running on momentum left over from what came before. The town is a blue collar town several years after the factories closed up shop, where the people that are still around are only there because the pattern of their lives keeps them there.

Is that sad? I really don't know. The people in the town have a deep social connection that is hard to comprehend to people who have never lived in a small town; everyone knows most things about everyone, so you're all in the same ship together. Is it more of a tragedy to sail alone in a safe ship, or to sail with many others in a sinking one?

And that's the big picture of this book. Is Miles better off for the choices he made? It's a question that Russo doesn't directly answer himself, but tries hard to give the reader ample brush strokes to make up their own mind. Almost assuredly, different people will come to different conclusions from it.

f  i  n  a  l     t  h  o  u  g  h  t  s

This novel is one of the most readable pieces of fiction that I've read in a long while, enough so that I plowed through the roughly 500 pages in two sittings, and there's enough going on underneath the immediate surface that it will stick in your mind for a while. Russo has a gift for making realistic characters but not judging them (even Janine, although he seems sorely tempted to judge her at times), leaving it up to the reader to determine who makes sense in the whole scheme.

I couldn't recommend this one any more highly.

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