Kemper's Reviews > Empire Falls

Empire Falls by Richard Russo
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really liked it
bookshelves: 2014, modern-lit, plain-old-fiction, small-town

Empire Falls, Maine is a town that’s best days are long behind it. The mill and factory that used to be the main employers have been closed for years, and the only person around with two dimes to rub together is the very rich Francine Whiting who essentially owns and controls everything worth having in the area. Miles Robey was on the verge of earning his college degree and escaping Empire Falls forever when he returned home to care for his dying mother and ended up working for Mrs. Whiting as the manager of the Empire Grill.

Two decades later and Miles is a middle aged punching bag still slinging burgers who probably bursts into tears every time he hears Pearl Jam’s Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town. His selfish wife Janine is divorcing Miles to marry health club owner Walt Comeau who likes to stop by the Empire Grill every afternoon to rub it in. Miles’ father Max is the town neer-do-well who is impervious to guilt and is constantly trying to get money out of him. Town cop Jimmy Minty starts approaching Miles under the guise of friendship but has some long simmering grudge against him. Worst of all is that Miles has to report the slender profits to Mrs. Whiting even as she refuses to pay for any improvements to the increasingly shabby diner. The one bright spot in life for Miles is his teen-aged daughter Tick who he loves dearly and has a close relationship with.

This is the first book I’ve read by Russo (Although I’ve seen the movie version of Nobody’s Fool.), and I absolutely loved it. At least until the ending, but we’ll get to that shortly. The depiction of a small blue collar town slowly going under was done incredibly well from the opening that describes how Empire Falls has been ruled by the Whitings for generations and how heir C.B. went from his dream of wanting to be a poet and artist in Mexico to running the family business and marrying Francine.

The characters are another big selling point because there’s a lot more than I described in the brief summary above, and all of them seem rich and fully developed. It’s to Russo’s credit that he was able to make a cast that includes some absolutely infuriating and unpleasant people and make you at least understand all of them. There were times where I wished that Miles would push his father out of a moving car or toss a pan full of hot grease into the face of Walt, but there was also a certain obnoxious charm to them most of the time.

Miles is the heart of the book, and I was a little worried that I wasn’t going to like him much in the early going. I’m generally not a fan of passive characters that are so wrapped up in regrets and unearned guilt that they’re essentially just pawns for anyone looking to use them, and Miles fits this description to a T. Being raised Catholic by his selfless mother has convinced him that wanting anything is practically a sin, and he’s almost pathologically incapable of standing up for himself. However, Miles’ brother is constantly calling him out for taking the path of least resistance and urging him to at least try to change his circumstances. That awareness of his nature and the flashes of backbone that Miles shows at times make him sympathetic despite being pretty much a doormat.

As far as the ending (view spoiler)

Despite those complaints this was still an exceptionally well written book with that did a great job establishing and exploring all the tangled relationships in one dying town, and it has enough humor to keep everything from getting overly grim and depressing for the most part. It’s easy to see why it won a Pulitzer.
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Reading Progress

July 10, 2014 – Started Reading
July 10, 2014 – Shelved
July 23, 2014 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-21 of 21 (21 new)

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Jason I heart this book very much.


Kemper Jason wrote: "I heart this book very much."

I just started listening to the audio version this morning, but I'm already loving it.

This is the first Russo I've read although I liked the movie version of Nobody's Fool.


Barbara I love this book too...enjoy! Can't wait to hear your review.


Selwa I read this book many years ago, and while I didn't remember much of the plot (until reading your review, anyway), I do remember enjoying it enough to give my copy to a colleague and then buying a new copy for myself. Which I now want to reread. Great review!


Chris Great book, and the audio was fantastic!


message 6: by Mike (new) - added it

Mike Your intro summary has me hooked so I'll dodge the spoilers for now. Itching to track this down in the secondhand bookstores. Selwa's comment about giving away her copy and buying a new one for herself is a sure sign of quality writing. Great review.


Kemper Selwa wrote: "I read this book many years ago, and while I didn't remember much of the plot (until reading your review, anyway), I do remember enjoying it enough to give my copy to a colleague and then buying a ..."

It's one I'd like to have a copy around, too.


Kemper Chris wrote: "Great book, and the audio was fantastic!"

Thanks! And you're right. I should have mentioned that the narrator was great on the audio version of this.


Kemper Mike wrote: "Your intro summary has me hooked so I'll dodge the spoilers for now. Itching to track this down in the secondhand bookstores. Selwa's comment about giving away her copy and buying a new one for h..."

I'd recommend it to almost everyone except those who absolutely can't stand annoying or obnoxious characters because there's more than a few in this book.


Marie-pier Kemper wrote: "Jason wrote: "I heart this book very much."

I just started listening to the audio version this morning, but I'm already loving it.

This is the first Russo I've read although I liked the movie ver..."


Did you watch the mini-serie that HBO did back in 2005?


Kemper Marie-pier wrote: "Kemper wrote: "Jason wrote: "I heart this book very much."

I just started listening to the audio version this morning, but I'm already loving it.

This is the first Russo I've read although I like..."


Nope. Missed that one and HBO Go doesn't have it for some reason.


Marie-pier Kemper wrote: "Marie-pier wrote: "Kemper wrote: "Jason wrote: "I heart this book very much."

I just started listening to the audio version this morning, but I'm already loving it.

This is the first Russo I've r..."


Darn, it's really good.

I can't say I have watched Nobody's Fool, but Newman comes back in the HBO Serie, (along with Hoffman and Ed Harris)as the con-artist dad.


message 13: by Kemper (last edited Jul 25, 2014 08:05AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Kemper Marie-pier wrote: "I can't say I have watched Nobody's Fool, but Newman comes back in the HBO Serie, (along with Hoffman and Ed Harris)as the con-artist dad.

I like Nobody's Fool quite a bit. It's a great low-key kind of story and Newman is in fine form. It's also one of those rare movies that reminds you that Bruce Willis can do more than shoot people and scowl when he puts his mind to it.


message 14: by James (new)

James Thane I've read several of his books and have enjoyed all of them. (Also loved the movie version of Nobody's Fool.) I share your concerns about the ending of this one, though.


message 15: by Elizabeth (new)

Elizabeth really enjoyed this review. plan to read.


Kemper James wrote: "I've read several of his books and have enjoyed all of them. (Also loved the movie version of Nobody's Fool.) I share your concerns about the ending of this one, though."

I'm going to read Nobody's Fool in the very near future since I liked this one and the movie version of NF so much.


Kemper Elizabeth wrote: "really enjoyed this review. plan to read."

Thanks. Hope you like it but remember that I'll accept absolutely no responsibility if you don't.....


Michael Excellent review. This one is a bit more serious and emotionally wrought than others of his I've enjoyed. Along with Straight Man, I like the balance of humor, ego humbling plots, and family drama in his That Old Cape Magic and Bridge of Sighs.


Kemper Michael wrote: "Excellent review. This one is a bit more serious and emotionally wrought than others of his I've enjoyed. Along with Straight Man, I like the balance of humor, ego humbling plots, and family dram..."

Thanks!


message 20: by Leah (new)

Leah Polcar Hard to ignore the Maine connection -- in my audiobook queue as we speak. Jeez, you give me far far far too much to read!


Kemper Leah wrote: "Hard to ignore the Maine connection -- in my audiobook queue as we speak. Jeez, you give me far far far too much to read!"

I really enjoyed the narrator on this one, too. And I take no responsibility for what you add to your reading list. I can't even control my own.


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