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Empire Falls

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Welcome to Empire Falls, a blue-collar town full of abandoned mills whose citizens surround themselves with the comforts and feuds provided by lifelong friends and neighbors and who find humor and hope in the most unlikely places, in this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Richard Russo.

Miles Roby has been slinging burgers at the Empire Grill for 20 years, a job that cost him his college education and much of his self-respect. What keeps him there? It could be his bright, sensitive daughter Tick, who needs all his help surviving the local high school. Or maybe it’s Janine, Miles’ soon-to-be ex-wife, who’s taken up with a noxiously vain health-club proprietor. Or perhaps it’s the imperious Francine Whiting, who owns everything in town–and seems to believe that “everything” includes Miles himself. In Empire Falls Richard Russo delves deep into the blue-collar heart of America in a work that overflows with hilarity, heartache, and grace

483 pages, Paperback

First published May 8, 2001

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About the author

Richard Russo

63 books4,210 followers
RICHARD RUSSO is the author of seven previous novels; two collections of stories; and Elsewhere, a memoir. In 2002 he received the Pulitzer Prize for Empire Falls, which like Nobody’s Fool was adapted to film, in a multiple-award-winning HBO miniseries.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 5,044 reviews
Profile Image for Jim Fonseca.
1,100 reviews7,187 followers
July 12, 2021
I suspect that most people reading this review do NOT live in the hometown where they were born. You didn’t marry your high school sweetheart and/or, going on forty, you’re not still secretly in love with an old sweetheart who still lives in town. You don’t live in a couple of sleazy rooms above the diner you run. Your ex-alcoholic brother and your borderline anorexic teen-aged daughter don’t flip burgers and wait tables for you. Your ex-wife’s new husband doesn’t hang out drinking coffee at the lunch counter trying to be your friend: “No hard feelings.” Your Dad doesn’t come in trying to get free food and steal beer money from the register. The high school bully doesn’t still bully you (and now he’s a cop). Your ex-mother-in-law doesn’t run the bar across the street from your diner. (But you’re still friends with her because you’re the harmless type of guy that mothers want their daughters to marry). You don’t frequently go out of your way to park outside the house you grew up in and despair that it is now deteriorated and occupied by drug dealers.


To me, a major theme of this book is what it would be like to have stayed in your hometown. As a geographer I enjoy reading and thinking about this theme. There are Movers and Stayers and even research studies about how these folks are different – we all know both types. A recent Pew Research study (http://assets.pewresearch.org/wp-cont...) found that “movers” tend to be college educated; they move for jobs and once they move out of their hometown they are likely to move again in search of better employment and greener pastures. The “stayers,” about 37% of American adults who still live in or around the town they were born in, stay for family ties. The Mid West has the highest proportion of stayers; the West the least; East and South are in the middle.

The story: you have snippets of the story in the things I wrote above about movers and stayers. There is a real story here, almost a plot that becomes evident as the story moves along. It’s tightly knit and revealed bit by bit as we learn the significance of events that the boy experienced early in life without understanding then what was happening. (And it takes him 40 years to figure some of it out.)

We’re in a dying former mill town in Maine, a few hours from Boston. A significant component of the story actually involves mover and stayer philosophy: when the main character’s mother was dying from cancer, she implored him, more or less: “Get out of this town; get out – don’t stay --- that’s why I sent you away to college.” Even though his mother dies, he chooses to drop out of college and stay.


An aging widow runs the town. Her family owns the now-abandoned shirt factory that almost everyone used to work in; she even owns the diner that the main character runs and she owns the bar that his mother-in-law runs. Even as an adult, the main character doesnt realize the full story of how these events fit together.

Along the way we get glimpses of modern American life in such a has-been place. The re-occurring Trump-like rumors born of desperation that the factory will re-open (as if Americans are going to start making shirts again for $2 an hour); the church closings due to population loss; the probably-gay priest; the desperation of the left-behind elderly like his father who have to “borrow” and scam people for beer money; a horrendous school violence incident.

Here are a few passages I liked and some reveal a little more of the story:

The short man disliked calling attention to that fact, so “The furniture was of the sort used in model homes and trailers to give the impression of spaciousness; this optical illusion worked well enough except on those occasions when large people came to visit, and then the effect was that of a lavish dollhouse.”

“Kids today stuffed the entire contents of their lockers into their seam-stitched backpacks and brought it all home, probably, Miles figured, so they wouldn’t have to think through what they’d need and what they could do without, thereby avoiding the kinds of decisions that might trail consequences.”

“To her way of thinking, any man with no more sex drive than Miles Roby [the main character] possessed might better have just gone ahead and embraced celibacy and been done with it, instead of disappointing poor girls like herself.”

[the teen-aged daughter thinks:] “…at least she didn’t have to go to church anymore now that her mother had replaced Catholicism with aerobics.”

“The donut shop in Empire Falls had always been one of Max Roby’s favorite places because of its smoking policy, which was, ‘Go ahead. See if we care.’”

The old Alzheimer-prone priest thinks of the main character’s father: “…he’d always held Max Roby in the lowest possible esteem as a blasphemer, a shiftless charmer, a drinker and a general ne’er-do-well. What he seemed less clear about was why he’d objected to these qualities.”

The younger priest says of the older priest’s strange utterances: “I understand why it’s coming out but how do you suppose it got in there?”

“Listening to people talk on the telephone, for Father Tom’s way of thinking, was the next best thing to hearing confessions.”

When the main character is a young boy, his father is arrested as a public nuisance: “Having this short phrase to describe him was better than suspecting that his father was so different and unnatural that nobody had yet invented a way to describe him.”

“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. … Surely God must have other projects besides Man, just as parents had responsibilities other than raising their children?”

I liked the well-knit, slowly revealed plot and I loved the humor and the irony, shown in some of the quotes above. A great read and I’m adding it to my favorites --- first one in a couple of months.

photo of Gem Diner, syracusenews.com
mill in Maine from abnf.co
Profile Image for Candi.
622 reviews4,714 followers
August 5, 2017
"Lives are rivers. We imagine we can direct their paths, though in the end there’s but one destination, and we end up being true to ourselves only because we have no choice. People speak of selfishness, but that’s another folly, because of course there’s no such thing."

I’ve been pondering this quote for some time now after having finished Richard Russo’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Empire Falls. Is it true that we have no choice in where our lives take us? Do we only perceive that we have choices and opportunities, whereas in fact our paths are predetermined? Or does believing such a precept just mean that one is placing blame on circumstances that can in fact be overcome? The message may be found within the pages of this extraordinary novel.

Empire Falls centers on the lives of those characters that live in this small town of Maine. During its glory days, the town flourished due to the logging and textile industries run by the all-powerful Whiting family. Nowadays, the town is run-down, yet many of its inhabitants remain hopeful that some day it will once again prosper. This is due largely to the fact that the mill and the factory remain intact, a vision of what used to be and what could be if someone would only grasp the opportunity. What does remain and stands as the focal point of the actual happenings in the town is the Empire Grill.

"The Empire Grill was long and low-slung, with windows that ran its entire length, and since the building next door, a Rexall drugstore, had been condemned and razed, it was now possible to sit at the lunch counter and see straight down Empire Avenue all the way to the old textile mill and its adjacent shirt factory. Both had been abandoned now for the better part of two decades, though their dark, looming shapes at the foot of the avenue’s gentle incline continued to draw the eye."

It is here that we meet Miles Roby, manager of the Empire Grill. What fascinates me about small towns is the fact that many of its people really never get away. Despite economic instability, there is a core of folks that seem to stick it out – perhaps they don’t perceive a means of escape or maybe they see the town for what it once was and that memory eclipses any sense of hardship. Miles Roby, with a major push and the support of his mother, did get out only to return once again due to circumstances that seemed out of his control. Now under the thumb of Francine Whiting, reigning heiress to the Whiting fortune, Miles seems to have reached a dead end, much like the town itself. He lives in a shabby apartment over the grill, is soon to be divorced, and has responsibilities to his teenage daughter, Tick, his deadbeat father, Max, and his recovering alcoholic brother, David. Through him we also meet a wealth of other complex individuals – some good, some not so good, and some downright cringe-worthy. And yet, under the masterful pen of Russo, each character is written in a way that completely absorbs your full attention. However mundane each person appears on the surface, he or she still manages to throb with life on each page. The interactions and dialogue in this book are superb – believable, gripping, sometimes sad, and often humorous.

The novel is at heart a character-driven story. There exists a plot that is very slowly and deliberately revealed – a couple of turns that I did not fully anticipate. Don’t expect quick action – you will be disappointed. And yet, I found myself nearly holding my breath towards the end of the book; I was that entangled with the lives of the characters. I was hopeful for the future of the town and its people. There was something in nearly each person that I could relate to and understand. What I came to realize in the end is that we should each grab hold of our dreams, take control of our circumstances, and in fact change the direction of that river. We may not end up exactly where we imagined, but neither do we need to flounder and succumb to its currents.

I think it would be safe to say that even though this is my first (I know right, where have I been?!) Richard Russo novel, he will be on my list of favorite authors! This book has those elements I adore in my books - memorable and extremely well-drawn characters, brilliant writing, and surprising plot twists. 5 stars

"After all, what was the whole wide world but a place for people to yearn for their hearts’ impossible desires, for those desires to become entrenched in defiance of logic, plausibility, and even the passage of time, as eternal as polished marble?"
Profile Image for Algernon (Darth Anyan).
1,526 reviews979 followers
February 7, 2016

coup de foudre = A sudden unexpected event, especially an emotional one; love at first sight.

The reviews that I find the most difficult to write are not the negative or even the glowing ones, but the ones about books that that may be not the best written or the best plotted but touch me on a personal level, the ones that strike close to my inner core. I haven’t read any other novel by Richard Russo, but starting on Empire Falls felt like going to a party where you don’t know anybody, starting up a conversation with a stranger, and finding that you are kindred souls, ending up on the balcony talking and talking and talking about life, the universe and everything until the sun comes up.

Empire Falls is about a small factory town in Maine (paper and textile mills), after the industry has packed its bags and left for a third world country. Left behind are the former workers, now haunting the derelict streets like zombies, emotionally drained and too tired to even consider starting over.

The poster boy of Empire Falls is Miles Roby, a middle aged man who has been flipping burgers at the Empire Grill for twenty years. Brought back temporarily from a promising start in a Boston college by a family crisis, Miles is now struggling to keep the business afloat for his wealthy owner, to cope with divorce and with a teenage daughter, with a brother recovering from drug addiction, with a dad who is a grifter and a crook, with an old flame returning to town and with another old flame that is still ignoring his tentative advances. He also spends a lot of his time reminiscing about the past and about the wrong turns that had put him in this dead end spot.

I will not try to explain more about the plot, other than mentioning that there is a lot of resentment and passion running like an undercurrent through the placid town, leading to a devastating conclusion. By following Miles Roby down memory lane, I have got to know not only the secret history of Empire Falls, but also the personal dramas of his friends and families. By the end of the story, I felt like I have also spend part of my life in a rundown industrial town (Ploiesti right now is nor exactly prosperous, not at the end of its tether either). This is for me the forte of Richard Russo : his empathy for these fallible people, his sharp insights delivered with a compassionate touch. I only have one quote to illustrate my point, but there are numerous others in the story that I left behind, focusing instead on the families and their troubles. Miles is watching his daughter’s schoolmates sitting at a table in his diner:

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 is not a happy story, although it does occasionally remembers to laugh or to be tender. The major tonality is one of loneliness and sadness, and this is why I was reminded of how a picture can paint a thousand words, and why I decided that the best way to capture the impression it made on me is to include some artwork in my review:

- how I imagine Empire Falls, the town:


- how I imagine Empire Grill, the diner:


- Tick and her boyfriend in the evening:


the isolated house by the railroad (yes, there is one spooky house in the novel):

spooky house

Miles Roby's wife:

single table

Miles Roby's mother, as a young woman:


** all images copyright Edward Hopper
Profile Image for Arah-Lynda.
337 reviews532 followers
February 7, 2017
The small Maine town of Empire Falls has seen better days.  The local and once booming timber and textile industries have run their course and all that remains is the abandoned and decrepit real estate of what once was.  

The blue collar workers of this small New England community struggle to find the few jobs remaining that allow them to keep the wolf at the door and food on the table, ever hopeful of revitalized opportunities.

And it is here that we meet Miles Roby, manager of The Empire Grill.  Miles is a good and decent man who did not always dream of flipping burgers and taking care of the grill, in fact at one time he had promising opportunities slated for his future.  But then life, as it is wont to do, bit back and he answered an urgent call to return home from college and help care for his ailing Mother.   

The vast majority of  the real estate and by extension the job opportunities in Empire Falls are owned  and controlled by the Whiting family or to be more precise, Francine Whiting.  

This really is not a plot driven novel.  The real bounty here lay in the character development of the residents of Empire Falls that we largely come to know through Miles Roby.  And oh my word, what a treasure trove of characters they are.  So real and flawed, everyday folk, fleshed out so well by Russo’s pen that you may find yourself recognizing a few of them within your own circle of associates, friends and family.   Seriously I am so astounded by the raw talent on display here.  These people walk, talk and breathe, stagger and stink all over these pages.  And such a wide cast of people, each saddled with their own histories, beliefs, resentments, weaknesses, dreams and strengths and real life struggles.  I feel like I know them all intimately.

When you get to know people that well, for better or worse, you care about what happens to them. And there is a lot going on here.  Miles is on the cusp of a divorce and his ex’s future husband loves to hang about and taunt him.  His brother is a recovering addict and Miles just can’t be sure he won’t fall off the wagon.  Then there is his teenage daughter Tick who is spreading her own wings while coping with the ruins of her parents marriage.  His employer, the stoic Francine, maintains a strange hold over Miles and his father is the most colourful, odiferous vagrant you are ever likely to meet.  And so many more.  

What Russo has accomplished here in Empire Falls is nothing short of masterful.  It is a social novel on a grand scale that reflects real life issues with all the inherent joys and sorrows, beauty and blisters.   This is epic storytelling that will extend its gracious arms in welcome  and bruise your battered, hopeful heart.  

Profile Image for David Putnam.
Author 18 books1,591 followers
December 27, 2019
I came to this book in a unique way. I read that Paul Newman had read this book and called Richard Russo and said, "I want to do this movie." I've always loved Paul Newman and respected his opinion. I picked up the book and loved it. The book clicks along as a character story until the end where it takes a wicked turn which I didn't see coming. The writing is smooth and economic, the characters are real and easy to get to know. But most of all the author created the near perfect "Fictive Dream," a place that becomes home, a place you don't want to leave.
Highly recommend.
David Putnam Author of the Bruno Johnson series.
Profile Image for Matt Quann.
651 reviews386 followers
August 5, 2023
In this past year of reading I’ve found it easy to get through a book quickly, decide whether I enjoyed it or not, and move on to the next book in the infinite pile. Most books I’ll read in a week or so, and I approach my leisure time in a workman-like manner: it is relaxation time, but it also follows a pretty regular schedule. Rare are the books that cause me to slow down and delay finishing a novel simply to prolong the enjoyment provided by its reading. Empire Falls is that type of book. It is the perfect type of book for winter: it moves at a leisurely pace, is rich in character, and has absolutely stunning writing.

Empire Falls is a close as you can get to a perfect novel.

But a pitch-perfect novel is not exactly what you’d expect from reading the synopsis printed on the back of the novel. Miles Roby is a soon-to-be-divorced manager at the Empire Grill trying to raise his high school-age daughter (Tick) in rural Maine. Miles is stuck under the thumb of Mrs. Whitting, a local woman who owns much of the town’s real estate, businesses, and a good deal of the populace. There’s a plot, but the novel builds a story that revolves around character, and it is those characters that propel the book forward.

Man, oh man, are the characters ever impressive. Miles is whom the reader spends the most time with, and the conflict between his desire for a better life and the desire to be a good man is at the heart of the story. While I loved Miles, what is truly impressive is that Russo brings to life an entire town in entirely believable detail. You’ll remember Max Roby and be able to share Miles’ disdain for his father. But you’ll also know Max and feel a familiar excitement for his appearances and the humorously twisted moral compass he employs. Each and every character, even in the most minor of appearances, feels as if they could walk in your door as soon as you put the book down. My grandfather and I did a buddy read for this book. We both remarked that we knew so many of characters as they hewed so closely to the people from the rural lives we had lived.

The writing here is, as I’ve mentioned, breathtaking in its beauty and insight. Russo has packed a lot into this almost-500-page novel, and not a word of it feels wasted. He effortlessly moves from a scene at the grill, to a brief accounting of a newly arrived character’s life, and back to the scene without ever making me feel like the story meandered. So much of the beauty of the book comes from Russo’s ability to build an entire town piece by piece, with POVs from characters that range in social standing and disposition, each serving to highlight another aspect of Empire Falls.

Russo also makes profound and poignant statements in the novel that make for some of the most personally genuine writing I’ve ever read. I started at first to jot down passages I wanted to include in this review, but gave up after 100 pages. There’s just too much here to bother trying to include it all. I can’t begin to recall how many times I finished a chapter, set the book down, and just took a bit of time to ponder what I’d just read.

As for themes, Empire Falls deals with all the big stuff you’d expect to see from Pulitzer Prize-winning fiction. Miles is pulled between duty and desire throughout the entire novel, but his inertia constantly keeps him from acting in any major way to affect change in his life. Russo deals with the events in life that shape complex adults from the supple clay of childhood. He examines morality from all different angles, with all of his characters caught in some sort of ethically gray squabble throughout the story. Not all the characters make the right decisions, but I would never fault Russo as the decisions are always backed up by the characters’ upbringing, personality, or recent changes in their lives. Life, death, what makes a good life, and the influence we have on others. It’s a heavy set of themes that Russo deals with in admirable fashion.

To bring it all home, Empire Falls is simply one of the best novels I’ve ever read, and possibly the best novel I’ve read in 2016. I loved the characters, the setting, and the overlapping pursuits, desires, and interactions of the township make for a novel that never once bored me through the entire read. The book is long, I’ll give you that, but it is more patient than slow, and embracing that patience yielded one of the most rewarding reading experiences I’ve had all year. Should you exercise the same patience, you too will be rewarded with an absolutely breathtaking novel.
Profile Image for Guille.
782 reviews1,740 followers
December 19, 2020
Disfruto mucho leyendo a Richard Russo, tanto como he llegado a disfrutar de Yates o de alguna de las novelas de Oates. Mis felicitaciones al jurado que en 2002 le concedió el Pulitzer por esta novela.

Me admira todo lo que es capaz de sacar de las vidas anónimas, sin aparente interés, la forma en la que indaga en el mundo que esas personas configuran con sus padres e hijos, amigos y menos amigos, con sus amores, sean correspondidos, platónicos o poco más que erótico-festivos. Me convencen sus maravillosos diálogos, su humor, su agudeza. Me gusta cómo nos va poco a poco desvelando los secretos de sus protagonistas y en particular ese hecho trascendental en sus vidas que les llevará a descubrir aspectos de sí mismos que desconocían o se negaban a admitir.

Todo ello está presente en esta novela que se lee con la misma facilidad con la que uno se siente equivocadamente tentado de calificar su escritura. Una escritura que atrapa con la suavidad de sus buenas maneras, con su elegante e irónico tono de comedia triste, con el cariño hacia sus personajes que el autor consigue trasmitir de forma tan fabulosa, con la inteligencia y el ritmo con la que va destejiendo los hilos de la colorida trama de relaciones que forman esta pequeña comunidad en la que cada individuo añade a sus conflictos personales los heredadas de padres y abuelos.

Aunque no es el único, ni mucho menos, el tema fundamental de esta novela de perdedores, enmarcada en Empire Falls, una pequeña población de Maine que vivió tiempos mejores y que representa una forma de vida en franca decadencia, se encuentra en el mismo prólogo: alguien empeñado en la inútil tarea de cambiar el curso de un río.

¿Se puede cambiar? ¿Hasta qué punto nos determinan la herencia, la educación, el pasado propio y familiar, las acciones de los demás? ¿Puede uno sentirse virtuoso o solo afortunado? ¿“La verdad no sirve como sustituto de una buena respuesta”, por mucho que la realidad la niegue una y otra vez? La respuesta a estas preguntas es lo que parece querer buscar el relato de la vida de Miles Roby, un tipo aburrido, un Jimmy Stewart fondón, incapaz de sentirse a gusto consigo mismo a pesar de ser la persona más agradable y buena de todo Empire Falls, algo de lo que se aprovechan todos, incluido su padre que tanto recuerda al inefable Frank Gallagher de la fantástica serie de Shameless y que es el encargado de mostrarnos, además de posiblemente los mejores momentos humorísticos de la novela y algunas cositas no tan didácticas, la importancia que tiene aceptarse a uno mismo aunque sea en la derrota. O su mujer Janine que, harta de la tristeza de su matrimonio con Miles, piensa que podrá cambiar el curso de su vida al lado del hombre que le descubrió el paraíso del orgasmo y que tendrá que hacer frente a unas cuantas sorpresas no muy agradables.

Muy, muy recomendable.
Profile Image for Michael Finocchiaro.
Author 3 books5,631 followers
June 4, 2017
This was my first taste of Richard Russo's wonderful prose and lifelike characters. The book follows the lives of Miles Roby and his family in the dying industrial town of Empire Falls, Maine. The town itself is beautifully described throughout as the book transpires over a school year - Miles' daughter Tick's senior year at Empire High. I really loved how Russo writes dialog (both exterior and interior) and his sense of humor and irony. Most of the time, I felt like I was sitting in the Empire Grill listening to Walt doing his Perry Como impersonations while Horace was beating him in gin, Max was trying to steal money from the till, David was slinging burgers with his one good hand, Tick was ringing the bell over the door as she came in slumped over by her heavy backpack. The way that Russo uses "beats" in dialogs greatly added to the realism. I also found the two antagonists, Francine Whiting and Jimmy Minty, to be great foils to Miles. The bool weaves wonderful parallels between the past and present and is rich in analogies. The central message is one of taking responsibility for one's fate rather than blaming circumstances for one's shortcomings. Both the Prologue and Epilogue are wonderful bookends to the main story.

I can definitely see how he earned his Pulitzer in 2002 for this fantastic book. I have subsequently read Nobody's Fool and Everybody's Fool and loved and reviewed both here on GR.
Profile Image for Paula K .
435 reviews417 followers
December 11, 2019
Winner of the Pulitzer prize 2002

What a charming book!

Empire Falls in about everyday life in a small New England town that is in decline. Humorous, but also sad. Everyone in our bookclub was glad to have read this book. Just wonderful...

5 out of 5 stars
Profile Image for Fabian {Councillor}.
232 reviews488 followers
August 5, 2022
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.
Profile Image for Kemper.
1,390 reviews6,963 followers
September 4, 2014
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

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.
Profile Image for Will Byrnes.
1,309 reviews120k followers
October 29, 2008
This is a great American novel, following the intertwined lives of the residents of Empire Falls, Maine. Empire Falls is a declining mill town, lorded over by the baronial Whiting clan. It covers several generations, focusing mostly on the present day and recalling the past. Like all small towns, this is one with secrets, good guys and bad, but all the characters are drawn richly, with respect. There is wisdom here, perception and blindness, short joys and long regrets. This is a book that sings to me, resonating with issues that are personal and real in my life. It is a masterpiece.

Some of the characters make moral decisions and take the consequences of their actions.

Decisions are made for moral reasons and characters pay willingly for their sins. Working class and upper class interact here in a tale filled with religion, human experience
Profile Image for Rick.
778 reviews2 followers
April 23, 2015
Big novel about a little place in Maine. The town is in decline and the novel presents numerous characters and plots and overtells most of them, rather than let everyone speak for himself or circumstances to reveal meaning, the author piles on the evidence and looks in on character’s thinking without revealing their complexity. If scenes don’t repeat themselves, what they represent about the characters or fate of the town and its people do. Too much of the storytelling is pedestrian, though Russo can handle both description and characterization ably when he wants to, he often settles for a speedwritten, colloquial prose that doesn’t come to life.

And there is a meanness embedded in his descriptions of some characters (the Whitings, the Mintys, Janine Roby and her new husband) that borders on hypocrisy when balanced with the forbearance he presents some characters, whose behaviors, or at least motives seem not too far different from the less favored. Janine, for example, seems as abandoned and mis-served by marriage as the mother of Miles Roby, her husband, had been served by her marriage. One is tragic and the other pathetic. Despite going out of its way to make sure we share seemingly everyone’s opinion, including her mom and her daughter, that Janine is a fool, there is never any effort to elicit sympathy for a woman who became involved with a man who never loved her, worked cheek-by-cheek with the woman he always loved, and who has never managed to step up to the plate in any significant way.

The book ends with a long anticipated and digressively presented Columbine shooting and, in its wake, at least the possibility that Janine and Miles may reconcile and the town’s fortunes are rebounding sufficiently to allow life to go on. None of it seems organic, just one writer’s idea of a complicated story played out in a small town with some emblematic meaning for our post-industrial world.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Jason.
137 reviews2,345 followers
December 22, 2011
I’ve really fallen in love with the characters in this one.

To me, the most difficult thing to do in literature is develop a character. Character-driven novels are a gamble because if they are not handled correctly, they can crash and burn before they’ve taken off. Plot-driven novels are a safer bet, but then you’d miss out on an opportunity to really provoke your reader. I liked Empire Falls primarily because of how real Miles and Max and Mrs. Whiting, etc. felt to me.

This book encompasses what it must have been like (although I’m only imagining here) to live in a small New England town suffering through a period of economic decay. It is depressing, and yet it isn’t—because of the characters. Somehow Miles inspires hope in the reader, and Max’s frustrating personality actually serves to make a point (in addition to providing comic relief), which is that you don’t actually have to take life so seriously. I mean, you can if you want. But you don’t have to. And even Mrs. Whiting speaks volumes. She may be vicious and manipulative on the surface, but the more the reader discovers about her, the more he is able to empathize with her. She has struggled more than any other character in the novel and yet she presents herself stoically. How very “New England” of her. And so do we find out for sure whether there’s a heart of gold underneath all that armor? Nope! Because really, not much happens in this story plot-wise. But it almost doesn’t matter because it is the great set of characters in this book that, for me, made it most enjoyable.
Profile Image for Brina.
933 reviews4 followers
June 14, 2020
School is coming to a close this week. This year has been doubly challenging with the kids learning at home on line. I am looking forward to not having to wake kids up for school, reminding them to log into class, and being on call just in case someone needs help with their homework. Although this year was cut short for me, summer vacation also means not working in my role at school a few mornings a week. Summer for me usually means baseball games and a trip to the beach and I’m holding out hope that at least one of these still happens this year. Even without my markers of summer for nearly three glorious months I do not have to be on a schedule, and for me that means almost unlimited time to read. Long, unstructured days has me gravitate toward long, family sagas, which reel me in and complete in a matter of days. With summer vacation oh so close, I decided to been my reading early with a book from my Pulitzer winners’ stack. My good reads friends have long alerted me to the writing of Richard Russo. I felt it was high time that I read his writing for myself.

Empire Falls, Maine is emblematic of small town America. I am easily drawn to books about the quirky personalities that comprise small towns, but Empire Falls is not the quaint, small community that I generally read about. The town is a mill community gone to seed as the closing of factories brought an end of an era where the majority of townspeople went to work in one of the Whiting family’s mills. In Empire Falls, people worked together, ate together in diners, prayed together in its churches, and cheered together in the bleachers at the town’s football and basketball games. Under the rule of Elijah and son Honus Whiting, Empire Falls repeated this cycle year after year, and the town remained a thriving community. Honus’ son Charles Beaumont Whiting had no desire to go into the family business even if it meant never having to work for a day in his life. He wanted to go somewhere where no one knew about his family name or wealth and was content soaking up sun in Mexico and writing poetry. Known as Beau, he would have lived out his days in the south if filial obligation had not called him home to learn the ropes and run the family business. Beau Whiting did not want to live out his days in isolated, depressed Empire Falls. If he had his ways, he would find a way to live out his days in Mexico and change the course of the town’s history.

At age forty Miles Roby is as emblematic of Empire Falls as Empire Falls is of small town American life. Miles has lived in Empire Falls for his entire life, going to work as the manager of the Empire Grills while he was still in college. Miles’ mother Grace Roby had the foresight to realize that Miles should leave Empire Falls to attend college and never come back. She was at the liberty of her deadbeat husband Max, a part time house painter and full time alcoholic who would jaunt down to Key West for months at a time. Although poor and shunting the responsibilities in life, Max had the initiative to leave Empire Falls when few others did. Readers meet Max at age seventy when he has been a widower for twenty years. Only his frayed relationships with his sons have kept him in Empire Falls part time or he would have left for Key West years ago. Grace Roby realized this and desired better for her son Miles, and then Grace fell ill. Like Beau Whiting before him, Miles Roby came home to fulfill familial obligations, and never left, returning to his job at the Empire Grill, a restaurant as destitute as the town itself. Unlike Beau Whiting, however, Miles Roby did not have the means to pack up and leave Empire Falls on a whim, although as he enters middle age, the thought is in the back of his mind. Readers meet Miles at the height of his sad existence and feel sorry for him from the get go, reading in hope that both his life and that of town improve.

One character who provides hope for the future is Miles’ teenaged daughter Tick (full name Christina). Frustrated that her mother would divorce her father in favor of a sixty year old man, Tick gravitates to the Empire Grill, and works there after school just as her father had before her. Miles’ younger brother David warns him that if he is not careful, Tick will become the next manager of the Empire Grill. We find out that David is fulfilling Grace’s deathbed promise to him, which is to look after his brother. David would have been one to make it in life. He has a creative streak which is apparent in injecting new life to the Empire Grill, but a car accident cut short some of his own dreams. Both David and Tick have much of Max’s personality in them, and David does not want Tick to repeat Miles’ shortcomings. She is an honors student and budding artist who has spurned the advances of the current generation of the town bully. If Tick could only have a means of getting out of Empire Falls, she could be the one to finally make good on Grace’s dreams and improve her station in life. As a fifteen year old with her parents about to divorce, Tick’s entire future is the Empire Grill. If she does not go in the direction of her dreams, the generational cycle of Empire Falls would be doomed to repeat itself.

None of the characters who comprise Empire Falls are particularly likable. Russo’s deep characterization of the town and its people had me reading quickly I hopes that someone would make good and actually improve their life. Perhaps Max would stabilize in old age provide Tick with a means of leaving the town; yet, with his history, that scenario was not too likely. If none of the protagonists were characters who I immediately fell for, then the antagonists were ones who I detested from the beginning. Empire Falls proprietress Francine Whiting and her daughter Cindy held the entire town wrapped around their fingers. A good reads friend in her review compares Francine Whiting to Mary Carson in The Thorn Birds, equating the two older women because in their old age, they would only be happy if none of the other characters lived a happy life either. We find out that there is a deep secret that binds the Whiting and Roby families that takes Russo the entire length of the novel to unravel. Each time the storyline returned to Francine Whiting, I would get as frustrated as Miles Roby and the other denizens of Empire Falls, a shared abhorrence of the town benefactress. Miles’ relationship with the Whitings is that much more complicated than that of the rest of the town. It is this storyline that allowed me to not necessarily like Miles’ character but to root for him to end the cycle of dependence on Empire Falls for his family’s subsistence. Between his frustration with his soon to be ex-wife, his father’s shenanigans, and the Whitings’ ruthlessness, Miles in his middle age where he can still change his life begins to heed his younger brother’s advice. Tick Roby might become the one who leaves the generational pull of Empire Falls.

Empire Falls checks off boxes that the Pulitzer committee looks for in its winners: life in a small town, generations repeating mistakes and themes, wisdom coming with age even in the form of both quirky (Max) and detestable (Francine) characters, and sliver of hope for the future (Tick). The novel, according to my good reads friends, is only one of Richard Russo’s outstanding novels as he has made a career of writing about small towns in the northeast United States. The characterization is complex both in the story line and it’s multiple characters. Even though the town itself is depressing, Russo’s writing has me wanting to visit a real life Empire Falls to witness the scenery and quaintness of the ebbs and flows of the town’s life. Summer is only beginning, and I hope to fit in many family sagas before it is over. There is nothing quite like reading award winning generational tales on long summer days. Empire Falls and the writing of Richard Russo was a quality way to kick off the season’s reading.

5 star read
Profile Image for Carol.
72 reviews2 followers
January 27, 2015
Bittersweet story about everyday life in a small town, or so it seems. I have to admit that I was a little bored at the beginning of it (the prologue was a little dry, in my opinion), but once I got into the present-day scenario, Russo gradually brought the storyline to a powerful culmination and held my interest to the end.
Profile Image for Andrew Smith.
1,080 reviews621 followers
August 16, 2022
I really enjoyed Nobody’s Fool and the follow-up Everybody’s Fool. Russo introduced me to a delicious group of characters inhabiting a small town in upstate New York. Lots happened but at the same time nothing much happened – I guess what I’m saying is that all of the happenings were small ones, which seemed to suit the setting and the cast admirably. So the question for me was could he do it again?

This time the setting is a small town in New England, once dominated by a shirt factory established by the Whiting family. The latest in the line of of Whitings – C.B. – has returned to New England to run what’s left of the family business. Unfortunately, time, tastes and globalisation have taken their toll. We slip back in forth in time to track the before and after but essentially the factory building itself eventually becomes a ruin which casts its shadow over the town. In the meantime, we meet Miles Roby, a bright lad who’s tragically had to abort his attempts to escape the town for a brighter future, giving up his college education to return to Empire Falls when his mother is struck down with terminal cancer. We are to learn a good deal more about C.B. Whiting and Miles Roby as this story plays out.

For me the charm in Russo’s stories are in the small interactions between characters we become familiar with – typically, it seems, through gatherings and discussions at the local bar or café. There are plenty of laughs to be had here (the antics of the senior local priest and of Roby’s father are hilarious) but there’s sadness too as plans go awry and lives are pushed off-track. And there’s a bigger story to be told this time too, a story that comes together fully in a surprise filled epilogue.

The answer to the question I posed is, of course, yes! Russo once again drew me into a gentle tale of small town folk, but this time one with more of a punch. I loved it. I still miss Sully and the others from my first exposure to his work, but this tale has a lot to offer and is again brilliantly observed and skilfully written. I’ll certainly be searching out more of the author’s books.
Profile Image for B the BookAddict.
300 reviews667 followers
February 16, 2016

Winner of the 2002 Pultizer Prize, this novel has been reviewed many, many times in the last decade. One of those rare times when all the hype is actually true. To that end, I quote:

[Russo] is one of the best novelists around....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” The New York Times Book Review

Immensely satisfying...[Russo is] an unpretentious master of fictional technique whose deeper wisdom expresses itself in the distinctive fallibility, decency, humour and grace of the indisputably, irresistibly real people he puts on the page.” The Boston Globe

Russo writes with a warm, vibrant humanity....A stirring mix of poignancy, drama and comedy” The Washington Post

The history of American literature may show that Richard Russo wrote the last great novel of the 20th century” The Christian Science Monitor

This rates as one of the best novels I have read in the last decade. If you want a truly fine read, then read Empire Falls.

Profile Image for Linda.
238 reviews93 followers
March 16, 2008
This was a book my brother really enjoyed and recommended to me as recently as this summer. So it went on my list. :o)

My brother passed away on October 9, 2007. Today (well, since it's after midnight, technically, yesterday) is his birthday, so it seems fitting that I've finally gotten around to posting this review today.

When I finish a book, I find I kind of have to let things simmer in my brain a bit before I can really parse out all my reactions to it. I’m not sure why, but this one took me a little longer than usual. I think that it may be that the book didn’t really have one big point to make – rather, it was more an interweaving of lots of little points, that all weave together in a portrait of everyday life in a particular time and place.

I liked the book tremendously. I enjoyed the pace and the mood, and felt the author has a very natural sense of tone that communicates volumes about his characters and their situations in a mostly unobtrusive and seamless way. I also appreciated that he was able to write many of his characters in such a way that the reader is able to like them and sometimes empathize with them, even when they are not being particularly likeable. I found that I had developed an affection for characters even when they were occasionally – or more than occasionally – annoying. Kind of like with real people I know. :) This is a feature I really liked in the novel.

My first and most frequent response as I was reading the book was to hear in my head Thoreau’s line that “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Empire Falls is clearly a whole town living lives of quiet desperation. Though I think Thoreau meant it in terms of people being trapped by the daily grind, or leading an unexamined, insufficiently spiritually-nurturing kind of life. Whereas I mean it more in the sense of someone become ossified in ordinariness, having given up on their dreams, or not daring to dream at all. Miles Roby, the central character of Empire Falls, gave up on his dreams as a young man, and has become rooted in Empire Falls. Although he doesn’t walk around despairing of his life or choices, and does keep alive some hopes (however unrealistic) for the future, he has become settled into his small town life and narrow-bordered existence. Several other characters are undone by disappointed dreams – Grace Roby, who once gets tantalizingly close to the realization of a dream, only to have the rest of her life tainted by its failure to realize; Janine Roby, who leaves her husband in pursuit of a dream that ends up disappointing her; Tick Roby, who is in serious danger of giving up on her dreams before she has really even had the chance to take them out for a spin.

Inertia plays a key role in this sense of quiet desperation in the novel – inertia at times braided with wishful thinking. Over and over again, we see characters stuck in a particular pattern of behavior, with apparently no prospect for breaking out of their patterns. The characters that are the most tragic or pathetic (I’m not sure which, or even if it’s possible to distinguish between the two) are those who are or become trapped by their own wishful thinking. Miles, again, is the chief example of this, but you also see it in Cindy Whiting, Janine, Charlie Whiting, and even Max Roby. And, inertia in this story is true to its nature – it takes an out-of-the-ordinary event to knock loose inertia and set things back in motion.

Which is all beginning to sound like a fairly gloomy book, as I look over what I’ve written. But it’s not doom and gloom. It is, rather, a very human story about human relationships. And as much as you see in the book about human foibles, you also see moments of ordinary human grace. On the one hand, the book is full of all the secrets – petty and not so petty – that populate daily life, whether we keep them out of personal shame, or because of our uncertainty about whether telling or keeping a secret is more hurtful to others. On the other hand, the book is also full of quiet acts of self-sacrifice that some of these secrets entail, whether in the keeping or the telling (for example, David Roby keeping a secret from his brother in order to protect him.)

My one dissatisfaction with the book (not bad enough to call it a complaint) had to do with the final act. Although there needed to be a turning point event to knock Miles Roby out of his inertia, I think the author went a bit over the top. I didn’t think it was terrible, but I do think that was the one weak spot of the story.

Two random, disconnected thoughts that I wanted to mention but I couldn’t find anywhere to fit these in nicely into my review:

Disconnected Thought 1: Francine Whiting reminds me of no one more than the Mary Carson character in The Thorn Birds, especially as played by Barbara Stanwyck.

Disconnected Thought 2: There is a brilliant moment in Miles' final scene with Cindy Whiting, in which Cindy calls Miles out for pitying her, and for automatically assuming that she had never had any other romantic possibilities. Up until that moment, Miles has only ever seen Cindy as a cut-out, taking for granted that she had no existence beyond him, and suddenly, in an instant, she is revealed as a three-dimensional human being. That moment is so surprising for the reader it almost catches your breath, and the reader is left feeling supremely uncomfortable, as uncomfortable as Miles is at that moment, because the reader is exposed right alongside Miles – as Cindy's accusation reveals exactly what we have been thinking all along.

Finally one quote, which actually stands in for a much longer recurring motif:

“The passenger seat and floor of the Jetta were now paint-flecked, thanks to Max’s refusal to change into clean clothes when they quit for the day. He made no distinction between work clothes and other clothes, and since he had started helping Miles at St. Cat’s, the old man’s shirts and pants and shoes were all paint-smudged. When people pointed this out, he offered his customary “So what?” Few men, Miles reflected, lived so comfortably within the confines of a two-word personal philosophy.”

-- pg. 204-205
Profile Image for Dem.
1,190 reviews1,128 followers
August 1, 2014
2.5 Stars
Empire Falls by Richard Russo is a story about relationships and life in a small town called Empire Falls in Maine.

The stroy is extremely well written and the characters are very well developed. I felt at times I was looking in the windows of the characters homes and watching them live life on a daily basis. The relationship between the characters was so well portrayed and a wonderful sense of time and place comes across in the novel. Having said that I still just found the Novel OK . I think as the story unfolded and the details of small town life played out it seemed to drag on forever and I became bored and found myself page counting about 3/4 way through the book. What started out as an interesting and entertaining read became tedious and I looked forward to finishing the story.

To sum up I found the writing and the character development excellent and I enjoyed how he portrayed relationships in this small town. I just needed a little more drama to to keep me interested.

Profile Image for Sandra.
233 reviews56 followers
August 26, 2018
This is a wonderful book!
It follows the every day lives of the residents of Empire Falls, a small town in Maine, that has seen better days.
I loved the ‘setting the scenes’ chapter at the beginning of the book, showing the town in a more prosperous time when the mill and shirt factory were open and employment was high.
Now Miles manages the Empire Grill restaurant. He has a uncomfortable relationship with the matriarch of Empire Falls founding family, Mrs Whiting, who is also the owner of Empire Grill.
Miles is a great character and seeing the town and it’s residents through his eyes is amusing and touching.
Miles is a gentle caring guy with a lot of troubles on his shoulders; his teenage daughter Tick finding her way through high school, his wily dishonest father Max, his discontented fitness fanatic ex wife Janine and to top it all, having to endure the egotistical banter of his ex wife’s new beau, the Silver Fox AKA ‘the Little Banty Rooster!’
I loved this book, it combined a great story, amusing characters and more than a touch of wry humour. A must read!
Profile Image for Jennifer.
46 reviews29 followers
March 13, 2009
This was the BEST book I've read in quite a while. I had actually seen the HBO miniseries based on this a few years back and enjoyed it but didn't think about reading the book until someone told me it's everything Twilight isn't: well-written, complicated, fully-developed characters, good story, strong dialogue, etc, etc.
That's not to say there's any reason to compare it to Twilight. It's not about vampires or in the same genre or league.
The Maine town of Empire Falls is probably like many Rust Belt cities where residents who stayed behind struggle to get by and wonder what they missed by not leaving. Miles, the main character, almost made it out when he went away to college, but he came home to care for his dying mother. Two decades later he's still managing the local diner, where much of the novel is based. His wife has left him for the owner of the local gym, the woman he's loved since high school thinks he's too nice a guy to ever date. It'd be easy to feel sorry for him, but he's too smart and pulled together to take pity on and you know they're the ones losing out.
The novel moves at a small town pace. But honestly, the plot, while it holds together and left me wondering what was coming, isn't that important. There's a lot going on, but I didn't feel overwhelmed trying to keep up with everything. It's like Russo has dropped the reader into this world to grab a seat at the diner and watch small town life unfold. But it's not really the cliche small town life we all know, it's more modern and tarnished. Russo writes so beautifully and with empathy for his characters, who are allowed to have conflicting emotions and behavior, sometimes all at the same time. By the end I was sad to leave because I knew these people and they were so enjoyable to follow. I really hated Max for most of the book, but then it's not that his character changes, but you see him in a new light and by then end, I liked him, though he still drove me crazy.
I was a bit envious of Russo who seems to be able to pin people and their feelings down so well. Sure, he's creating these characters so he should know their dearest secrets and every emotion, but they're so realistically written that it feels like he's reading the mind of an actual person.
I could go on, but really, just read it. I think I'm in love with this book.

Here's a line I love from it that is kind of the point: Lives are rivers. We imagine we can direct their paths, though in the end there's but one destination, and we end up being true to ourselves only because we have no choice.
Profile Image for Pedro.
197 reviews430 followers
February 29, 2020
I believe there’s nothing better than a good long novel. I also believe there is nothing as despairing and frustrating as an overlong, meandering and over descriptive one. Empire Falls belongs to the second category. It felt like it was 2000 pages long to me. There were times I actually wanted to throw it against the wall and so I had to keep reminding myself that I had to work a few (too long) hours so I could afford my kindle.

I started suspecting I was not going to love this book by the time I had read the prologue; which was as long as some of the best novels I’ve read in recent times! Yes, that was when I felt the first hint of despair.

Then, after that overlong prologue I was (finally) introduced to what I thought was going to be the main character and I was pleased to know the guy. He seemed like a nice chap to me. Even quite relatable, to be fair (Well done, Mr Russo!). But unfortunately my enjoyment didn’t last long because soon I’d come across another overlong flashback/backstory which would take me away from the main narrative. What’s this obsession with flashbacks and background stories?!

Anyway, there’s no main characters here. This is one of those overpopulated stories where at some point you feel like you’re reading a screenplay for a very predictable soap opera instead of a novel.

I wanted more forward motion. I needed a main character and to know his inner feelings and thoughts and not all of his background life story.

Bloody hell, how I craved for (more) darkness and despair, violence and pain.

What I was pleasantly surprised about it though was the way Russo can perfectly handle a dialogue. I never felt as engaged about this story as I was at those moments where characters were having a conversation or argument. For that, Mr Russo I shall congratulate you again.

I’ll definitely recommend this to lovers of Fredrik Bachman’s Beartown trilogy. I can tell Backman is definitively a fan of Russo’s style.

I know by now all this sounds like a very negative review but it actually isn’t. Consider it more like a frustrated review. I really enjoyed this novel sometimes. The writing was good and the dialogue was great. Also I never thought I wasn’t going to finish it.

3.5 stars.
4 stars when compared to its Pulitzer Prize winner predecessor.

Profile Image for Cathrine ☯️ .
631 reviews349 followers
June 5, 2016
I am somewhat conflicted in my response to this one. A lengthy pulitzer prize winner brimming with small town Americana and loved by many, I was often distracted while reading with the tedious detail and slow pace of this character-driven novel. It seemed way longer than 483 pages. But Russo is a great writer and there were passages of sheer brilliance, humor, and heartbreak depicting working class people in a dying town.

Empire Falls is controlled by a rich black widow who owns it all and has the townspeople, especially Miles, spun up in cocoons to feed on when she needs to express her venom. Every character, even her cat, is painstakingly portrayed. Perhaps a case of too much of a good thing? Cut to the chase was running though my thoughts and my patience at times was tried; how many more pages to go? Yet I never wanted to quit. As is often the case, a great writer can have his way with the reader and the destination often justifies the journey getting there. A slow burner that eventually started to boil with a denouement that left me quite satisfied.

Al a carte
There is a 2 part movie adaptation done by HBO in 2005 with an all star cast and screenplay done by the author (which at the time of this posting is available for rental or free streaming to Amazon Prime members).
I checked it out and thought it very well done, perhaps better than the book (I know what you're thinking). Perfect if you want to experience an abbreviated version of the story. Perhaps worth noting that husband was bored half way through Part I and left to clean up the kitchen. I was good with that. Guessing he won't be reading the book either.

Profile Image for Renata.
132 reviews136 followers
February 10, 2017
A serious novel about small towns where everyone knows everyone else - and has for generations. I loved this book, as melancholy as it was. I loved the history of the characters and the town itself - although you really could not separate the two. Russo is one of my new favorite authors. He has such compassion for his characters.
Profile Image for Rasmus.
18 reviews29 followers
July 1, 2008
I bought this book having only read on the back of it's cover and seeing that it had won the Pulitzer. I half-way expected to find it sligthly boring for that same reason, simpy because I tend to like books with a fair amount of action. And "Empire Falls" has very little action.

But man, this book is so well written, I had to stop and curse out loud several times, being a writer myself. Small, everyday situations become intensely interesting, as the web of relationships becomes apparent. It felt almost like reading a soap opera, but with great actors and a huge budget. I simply had to know, what happened next to the people in this little town.

And when the book ended, I still wanted to know more. That more than anything, marks a great novel.

The only reason, I don't give it a full five stars, is because of some of the flashback chapters. They serve a purpose, but also took the pace down, sometimes to the point of boredom. When I did put this novel down, it was often during one of these chapters.

But all in all, Empire Falls is a great American novel in its original sense. I would recommend it to anyone and everyone.
Profile Image for Jr Bacdayan.
211 reviews1,740 followers
May 23, 2014
How do you cope with life when all your dreams stayed as they are, just dreams? How do you tell yourself “I have a happy life” when you know that what you yearned will never be? How do you start every morning with a smile? How do you keep afloat?

Empire Falls is the story of a small town who dreamed less than they should, and the few people who did and were the worse for it. It’s the story of unrealized dreams, an unrealized love, and an undone marriage. It’s the story of those who stayed, looking for anything stable in a place where, as the name suggests, everything falls.

“‘Power and Control’ Mrs. Whiting repeated, a smile playing at her lips.”

The mantra of the most powerful entity in Empire Falls proved to be her undoing. For like the great C.B.’s attempt on the Knox River, one cannot control life’s stream nor tamper with its power. Sometimes we think we do, sometimes we think we can overpower our dreams into fruition by sheer will, sometimes we think we can control life, but that is not always the case. Those times are but momentary lulls in a river raging with life. For if the untamable river of life makes empires, like Mrs. Whiting, fall. The same can happen to you and me. Life is like the River Knox, running, ebbing, and each flow different from the other.

“And I’ll tell you something else. What people around here like best about me? They like it that they’re more like me than they are like you. They look at me and they see the town they grew up in. They see their first girlfriend. They see the first high school football game they ever went to. You know what they see when they look at you? That they ain’t good enough. They look at you and see everything they ever done wrong in their lives. They hear you talk and maybe they’re thinking the same thing you are, except they can’t say it like you do and they know they won’t ever get credit. They see you and your buddy the principal with your heads together, deciding how things are gonna be, talking the way you talk and making your little jokes, and they know they’ll never get no place with either of you, not ever. But me? Maybe they might just get someplace with me, and that’s why they like me… They like my attitude, I guess you could say. And you know what? An attitude like yours? An attitude like yours leads to things.”

Of all the passages in this remarkable novel, this one had the most powerful impact on me. I confess that I’m guilty of this particular folly. Having gone to one of the best universities in my country, I usually talk fancy or intellectually even when I should not. I see people crease their brows, misunderstand me and feel inferior. When I do, more often than not, I take pride in that. I now abhor this foolishness and the pride along with it. With knowledge comes wisdom, the understanding of its application. For knowledge alone negates itself with the stupidity of pride, then boastfulness. Now I understand that I have no right to look down on people just because my dreams bore fruition. What if it were not the case? How would I feel then? The truly enlightened know never to be boastful, lest the great waves of the river descend upon you and drift your dreams away. One should not turn into a nightmare a good dream.

“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.”

The thing is unfulfilled dreams, as with Miles, will always stay with you. It will always cast a shadow on your life. But you know what? Dream again. Yes, having your dream unrealized hurts. It feels like shit. But not dreaming again is even worse; it will deflate your will to carry on. Giving up, that’s even shittier. Don’t let the pain of an experience defeat you, let it teach you instead. So dream of a new grill for your diner, dream of losing weight, dream of sending your kids to college, dream of buying all those books you’ve always wanted. Dream lots of things, because some of them are bound to come true. And it gets better. With your experience, you know that not every dream comes to pass. You’re less vulnerable, more mature, and with age, your dreams tend to be less selfish. Because when you were younger, your dreams were more synonymous with wants, now they’re much closer to hope. Maybe fortune is now more inclined to smile upon you. So how do you wake up every morning with a smile? You do so because just then, you were dreaming.

“After all, what was the whole wide world but a place for people to yearn for their hearts’ impossible desires, for those desires to become entrenched in defiance of logic, plausibility, and even the passage of time, as eternal as polished marble?”

How do you tell yourself “I have a happy life”?

Here’s a little secret. You don’t. There never is a happy life. Happiness is always momentary. Sometimes you’ll be happy, sometimes not. What people do wrong is they search for this happiness in their life’s entirety; but the answer is not to look, but to feel. Sight will always show you what you don’t have, what you didn’t become, what you failed to achieve, what’s better than you. But when you close your eyes and dwell about everything, every experience, every moment, you might just feel that little thing called contentment. And when you do, my friend, you’re one of the luckiest people on earth.

How do you keep afloat?

You stop fighting the current, let the river that is life carry you.
Profile Image for Char.
1,680 reviews1,554 followers
June 8, 2017
Empire Falls is not something I would have picked up on my own, but it came to me highly recommended, so I put a hold on the audiobook at my library and it finally came in.

This was a wonderful book and Ron McLarty is an excellent narrator. I can't really add to what hundreds of people have already said, so I'll just say I enjoyed the hell out of this tale, where nothing much really happens, but I feel like I know everyone in this town intimately. Highly recommended!
Profile Image for Daniel.
203 reviews
January 3, 2010
This is one of those rare occasions when I wish GoodReads were to offer half-star ratings, because then I could give "Empire Falls" four and a half stars. It was almost a five-star novel in my estimation, but I had a few quibbles with it. It's nevertheless an excellent book, and one I don't feel much need to review at length; my friend Jennifer, who both recommended the book to me and lent me her copy, has already written a brilliant assessment. Her review is at http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...

So what are my quibbles? They're not many, really, but I felt that, at times, Russo laid too much out for his readers. There is, for example, a scene in which David Roby details for his brother Miles the personality traits each sibling got from their father and which he received from their mother. It felt like something Russo should have allowed us, his readers, to figure out for ourselves. I wanted Russo to have more trust in his audience. Also, the book seemed to wrap up a bit too neatly; the lives Russo depicted were certainly messy, and they seemed to demand a less tidy conclusion.

Still, the book, overall, is a staggering achievement. Russo has an amazing eye for the human condition -- how the way our parents raise us often determines our directions us for the rest of our lives, even if we think we're smart enough to see those risks and do our damnedest to choose our own paths anyhow. (The novel feels, at times, like a book-length meditation on the poem "This Be The Verse," by Philip Larkin: "They fuck you up, your mum and dad. / The may not mean to, but they do. They fill you with the faults they had / And add some extra, just for you.")

On a personal note, it was interesting to read Richard Russo's book at the same time I read George Eliot's "Middlemarch." Both, by depicting the lives of tightly knit communities -- the births, deaths love affairs, marriages, educations, careers and dreams both failed and accomplished of the members of those communities -- get at the bigger truths of all our lives. Both Eliot and Russo have a gift for the sardonic, and make us develop an affection for characters who, objectively speaking, we should not like. There's no way we should want to spend time with Russo's Max Roby, yet Russo is such a talented writer that we not only suffer him but develop as much begrudging affection for him as his sons Miles and David have.

I've already written more about "Empire Falls" than I intended to. Jennifer nailed it, and you should read her review instead. Then read the book.
Profile Image for AiK.
545 reviews134 followers
June 8, 2023
Медленно-тягучее повествование романа Пулитцеровского лауреата с длиннейшими, скучнейшими и малозначащами диалогами о несущественных вещах, таких, как засор в посудомоечной машине в ресторане или похудение и сексуальная жизнь Жанин, нашедшей партнёра, который ее удовлетворяет, или почему дочь не ест, ковыряет вилкой, а ее родители тягают из ее тарелки кусочки, не нашло отклика в душе и не оставило яркого впечатления. Герои имеют ярко выраженное деление на положительных и отрицательных, как водится, положительные герои идеализируются. Майлз - чересчур идеальный отец, крайне внимательный к делам дочери - (все это ненатурально, так не бывает), его дочь Тик, с плоской грудью и узкими бедрами и внешностью, обещающей быть модельной, в своей идеальности вызывает раздражение - она и Джона Восса, парня, которого все унижают и над которым издеваются, поддерживает, и отказывает самому популярному парню Заку в дружбе, и своему отцу в его "Имперском Гриле" помогает, и конкурсы художественные выигрывает, ну и, как полагается, красавица. Отрицательные герои, конечно, - не откровенные злодеи, но автор не упускает случая подчеркнуть их отрицательность, незаслуженность успеха одних, злорадство по поводу ошибочных решений других, порицание за желание взять деньги взаймы третьих.
Главные герои принадлежат к среднему классу, предпринимательской среде в провинциальной Америке, среди второстепенных есть и богачи, которым в городишке принадлежит все, и настоящие нуждающиеся. Непонятно, ради какой идеи делались экскурсы на двадцать лет назад о зарождавшейся, но не нашедшем развития романе Грэйс и Чарльза.
Брошенный ребенок Джон Восс, кого в младенчестве родители частенько забывали подвешенным в мешке для белья в кладовке, остаётся брошенным обществом. Его третируют и унижают - он терпит, а когда терпение лопнуло и многолетние подавленные чувства униженности вылились в массовое убийство, общество не находит ничего лучшего, как упрятать его в психбольницу. Никаких уроков не вынесено, лишь погружение в пост-травматический синдром.
Автор поднимает целый пласт проблем - очевидно, за это и получил столь высокую награду - от буллинга до стрельбы в школе, от деменции до инвалидов, от вороватых полицейских до брошенного на свалку трупа бабушки - весь спектр возможных проблем, похоже, это и повлияло на объем книги и сделало ее настоящей кучей-малой. На мой вкус, лучше хорошо проработанная одна тема, чем весь клубок сразу. Так и осталось непонятным, ради какой идеи или спектра идей все это писалось. В общем, мне не понравился роман.
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