Empire Falls

Empire Falls

4.1 153
by Richard Russo

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Richard Russo—from his first novel, Mohawk—has demonstrated a peerless affinity for the human tragicomedy, and with this stunning new novel he extends even further his claims on the small-town, blue-collar heart of the country.

Dexter County, Maine, and specifically the town of Empire Falls, has seen better days, and for decades, in fact…  See more details below


Richard Russo—from his first novel, Mohawk—has demonstrated a peerless affinity for the human tragicomedy, and with this stunning new novel he extends even further his claims on the small-town, blue-collar heart of the country.

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

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

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

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Editorial Reviews


Richard Russo's most ambitious novel is also his most gracefully told. Sweeping in its social scope but also achingly personal and beautifully detailed, Empire Falls is a subtle drama about the plight of the working class in a decaying Northeast mill town.

After Gary Fisketjon edited and published Russo's powerful first novel, Mohawk, in 1986, he eagerly awaited the day he would have the opportunity to work with Russo again. He got his wish 15 years later, and Fisketjon, vice president and editor-at-large of Knopf, had this to say about it: "Empire Falls reveals our worst and best instincts and transfigures both our most appalling nightmares and our simplest hopes, with all the vision, grace, and humanity of epic storytelling."

Product Details

Knopf Publishing Group
Publication date:
Vintage Contemporaries Series
Product dimensions:
5.10(w) x 8.00(h) x 1.00(d)

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Compared to the Whiting mansion in town, the house Charles Beaumont Whiting built a decade after his return to Maine was modest. By every other standard of Empire Falls, where most single-family homes cost well under seventy-five thousand dollars, his was palatial, with five bedrooms, five full baths, and a detached artist's studio. C. B. Whiting had spent several formative years in old Mexico, and the house he built, appearances be damned, was a mission-style hacienda. He even had the bricks specially textured and painted tan to resemble adobe. A damn-fool house to build in central Maine, people said, though they didn't say it to him.

Like all Whiting males, C.B. was a short man who disliked drawing attention to the fact, so the low-slung Spanish architecture suited him to a T. 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.

The hacienda-as C. B. Whiting always referred to it-was built on a tract of land the family had owned for several generations. The first Whitings of Dexter County had been in the logging business, and they'd gradually acquired most of the land on both sides of the Knox River so they could keep an eye on what floated by on its way to the ocean, some fifty miles to the southeast. By the time C. B. Whiting was born, Maine had been wired for electricity, and the river, dammed below Empire Falls at Fairhaven, had lost much of its primal significance. The forestry industry had moved farther north and west, and the Whiting family had branched out into textiles and paper and clothing manufacture.

Though the river was no longer required for power, part of C. B. Whiting's birthright was a vestigial belief that it was his duty to keep his eye on it, so when the time came to build his house, he selected a site just above the falls and across the Iron Bridge from Empire Falls, then a thriving community of men and women employed in the various mills and factories of the Whiting empire. Once the land was cleared and his house built, C.B. would be able to see his shirt factory and his textile mill through the trees in winter, which, in mid-Maine, was most of the year. His paper mill was located a couple miles upstream, but its large smokestack billowed plumes of smoke, sometimes white and sometimes black, that he could see from his back patio.

By moving across the river, C. B. Whiting became the first of his clan to acknowledge the virtue of establishing a distance from the people who generated their wealth. The family mansion in Empire Falls, a huge Georgian affair, built early in the previous century, offered fieldstone fireplaces in every bedroom and a formal dining room whose oak table could accommodate upwards of thirty guests beneath half a dozen glittering chandeliers that had been transported by rail from Boston. It was a house built to inspire both awe and loyalty among the Irish, Polish and Italian immigrants who came north from Boston, and among the French Canadians, who came south, all of them in search of work. The old Whiting mansion was located right in the center of town, one block from the shirt factory and two from the textile mill, built there on purpose, if you could believe it, by Whiting men who worked fourteen-hour days, walked home for their noon meal and then returned to the factory, often staying far into the night.

As a boy, C.B. had enjoyed living in the Whiting mansion. His mother complained constantly that it was old, drafty and inconvenient to the country club, to the lake house, to the highway that led south to Boston, where she preferred to shop. But with its extensive, shady grounds and its numerous oddly shaped rooms, it was a fine place to grow up in. His father, Honus Whiting, loved the place too, especially that only Whitings had ever lived there. Honus's own father, Elijah Whiting, then in his late eighties, still lived in the carriage house out back with his ill-tempered wife. Whiting men had a lot in common, including the fact that they invariably married women who made their lives a misery. C.B.'s father had fared better in this respect than most of his forebears, but still resented his wife for her low opinion of himself, of the Whiting mansion, of Empire Falls, of the entire backward state of Maine, to which she felt herself cruelly exiled from Boston. The lovely wrought iron gates and fencing that had been brought all the way from New York to mark the perimeter of the estate were to her the walls of her prison, and every time she observed this, Honus reminded her that he held the key to those gates and would let her out at any time. If she wanted to go back to Boston so damn bad, she should just do it. He said this knowing full well she wouldn't, for it was the particular curse of the Whiting men that their wives remained loyal to them out of spite.

By the time their son was born, though, Honus Whiting was beginning to understand and privately share his wife's opinion, as least as it pertained to Empire Falls. As the town mushroomed during the last half of the nineteenth century, the Whiting estate gradually was surrounded by the homes of mill workers, and of late the attitude of the people doing the surrounding seemed increasingly resentful. The Whitings had traditionally attempted to appease their employees each summer by throwing gala socials on the family grounds, but it seemed to Honus Whiting that many of the people who attended these events anymore were singularly ungrateful for the free food and drink and music, some of them regarding the mansion itself with hooded expressions that suggested their hearts wouldn't be broken if it burned to the ground.

Perhaps because of this unspoken but growing animosity, C. B. Whiting had been sent away, first to prep school, then to college. Afterward he'd spent the better part of a decade traveling, first with his mother in Europe (which was much more to that good woman's liking than Maine) and then later on his own in Mexico (which was much more to his liking than Europe, where there'd been too much to learn and appreciate). While many European men towered over him, those in Mexico were shorter, and C. B. Whiting especially admired that they were dreamers who felt no urgency about bringing their dreams to fruition. But his father, who was paying for his son's globe-trotting, finally decided his heir should return home and start contributing to the family fortune instead of squandering as much as he could south of the border. Charles Beaumont Whiting was by then in his late twenties, and his father was coming to the reluctant conclusion that his only real talent was for spending money, though the young man claimed to be painting and writing poetry as well. Time to put an end to both, at least in the old man's view. Honus Whiting was fast approaching his sixtieth birthday, and though glad he'd been able to indulge his son, he now realized he'd let it go on too long and that the boy's education in the family businesses he would one day inherit was long overdue. Honus himself had begun in the shirt factory, then moved over to the textile mill, and finally, when old Elijah had lost his mind one day and tried to kill his wife with a shovel, took over the paper mill upriver. Honus wanted his son to be prepared for the inevitable day when he, too, would lose his marbles and assault Charles's mother with whatever weapon came to hand. Europe had not improved her opinion of himself, of Empire Falls or of Maine, as he had hoped it might. In his experience people were seldom happier for having learned what they were missing, and all Europe had done for his wife was encourage her natural inclination toward bitter and invidious comparison.

For his part, Charles Beaumont Whiting, sent away from home as a boy when he would've preferred to stay, now had no more desire to return from Mexico than his mother had to return from Europe, but when summoned he sighed and did as he was told, much as he always had done. It wasn't as if he hadn't known that the end of his youth would arrive, taking with it his travels, his painting and his poetry. There was never any question that Whiting and Sons Enterprises would one day devolve to him, and while it occurred to him that returning to Empire Falls and taking over the family businesses might be a violation of his personal destiny as an artist, there didn't seem to be any help for it. One day, when he sensed the summons growing near, he tried to put down in words what he felt to be his own best nature and how wrong it would be to thwart his true calling. His idea was to share these thoughts with his father, but what he'd written sounded a lot like his poetry, vague and unconvincing even to him, and he ended up throwing the letter away. For one thing he wasn't sure his father, a practical man, would concede that anybody had a nature to begin with; and if you did, it was probably your duty either to deny it or to whip it into shape, show it who was boss. During his last months of freedom in Mexico, C.B. lay on the beach and argued the point with his father in his imagination, argued it over and over, losing every time, so when the summons finally came he was too worn out to resist. He returned home determined to do his best but fearing that he'd left his real self and all that he was capable of in Mexico.

What he discovered was that violating his own best nature wasn't nearly as unpleasant or difficult as he'd imagined. In fact, looking around Empire Falls, he got the distinct impression that people did it every day. And if you had to violate your destiny, doing so as a Whiting male wasn't so bad. To his surprise he also discovered that it was possible to be good at what you had little interest in, just as it had been possible to be bad at something, whether painting or poetry, that you cared about a great deal. While the shirt factory held no attraction for him, he demonstrated something like an aptitude for running it, for understanding the underlying causes of what went wrong and knowing instinctively how to fix the problem. He was also fond of his father and marveled at the little man's energy, his quick anger, his refusal to knuckle under, his conviction that he was always right, his ability to justify whatever course of action he ultimately chose. Here was a man who was either in total harmony with his nature or had beaten it into perfect submission. Charles Beaumont Whiting was never sure which, and probably it didn't matter; either way the old man was worth emulating.

Still, it was clear to C. B. Whiting that his father and grandfather had enjoyed the best of what Whiting and Sons Enterprises had to offer. The times were changing, and neither the shirt factory, nor the textile mill, nor the paper mill upriver was as profitable as all once had been. Over the last two decades there had been attempts to unionize all the factories in Dexter County, and while these efforts failed-this being Maine, not Massachusetts-even Honus Whiting agreed that keeping the unions out had proved almost as costly as letting them in would've been. The workers, slow to accept defeat, were both sullen and unproductive when they returned to their jobs.

Honus Whiting had intended, of course, for his son to take up residence in the Whiting mansion as soon as he took a wife and old Elijah saw fit to quit the earth, but a decade after C.B. abandoned Mexico, neither of these events had come to pass. C. B. Whiting, something of a ladies' man in his warm, sunny youth, seemed to lose his sex drive in frosty Maine and slipped into an unintended celibacy, though he sometimes imagined his best self still carnally frolicking in the Yucatán.

Perhaps he was frightened by the sheer prospect of matrimony, of marrying a girl he would one day want to murder.

Elijah Whiting, now nearing one hundred, had not succeeded in killing his wife with the shovel, nor had he recovered from the disappointment. The two of them still lived in the carriage house, old Elijah clinging to his misery and his bitter wife clinging to him. He seemed, the old man's doctor observed, to be dying from within, the surest sign of which was an almost biblical flatulence. He'd been turning the air green inside the carriage house for many years now, but all the tests showed that the old fossil's heart remained strong, and Honus realized it might be several years more before he could make room for his son by moving into the carriage house himself. After all, it would require a good year to air out even if the old man died tomorrow. Besides which, Honus's own wife had already made clear her intention never to move into the carriage house, and she lately had become so depressed by the idea of dying in Maine that he'd been forced to buy her a small rowhouse in Boston's Back Bay, where she claimed to have grown up, which of course was untrue. South Boston was where Honus had found her, and where he would have left her, too, if he'd had any sense. At any rate, when Charles came to him one day and announced his intention to build a house of his own and to put the river between it and Empire Falls, he understood and even approved. Only later, when the house was revealed to be a hacienda, did he fear that the boy might be writing poems again.

Not to worry. Earlier that year, C. B. Whiting had been mistaken for his father on the street, and that same evening, when he studied himself in the mirror, he saw why. His hair was beginning to silver, and there was a certain terrier-like ferocity in his eyes that he hadn't noticed before. Of the younger man who had wanted to live and die in Mexico and dream and paint and write poetry there was now little evidence. And last spring when his father had suggested that he run not only the shirt factory but also the textile mill, instead of feeling trapped by the inevitability of the rest of his life, he found himself almost happy to be coming more completely into his birthright. Men had starting calling him C.B. instead of Charles, and he liked the sound of it.

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What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
“Rich, humorous, elegantly constructed . . . Easily Mr. Russo’s most seductive book thus far.”–The New York Times

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

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

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

“Nobody does small-town life better than Richard Russo.” –Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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Empire Falls 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 150 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I read the reviews to get a feel for how others have liked or disliked a novel but I do not appreciate the major spoiler disclosed by the February 2010 writer. Come on people! Sheesh.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
When my mom recommended this book, I was a little skeptical- her taste and mine don't necessarily mesh. From around the third page, I could see why she enjoyed this book. Great subtle humor from the main character's perspective! You can envision living in Empire Falls, because it is not so different from many small towns in America. As a mom, I was interested in the relationship between Tick and her mother, as well as her and her father's relationship. Overall, a wonderful read for just about anyone. Even my sister wants to read it now after how I said what a good book it is, and she doesn't even like to read! This would be a great book for book club discussion as well.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a wondrous book. It has a sweeping scope but is artful, well-crafted and highly entertaining. Russo shows a deep understanding of all human instincts and relationships in this novel about a small town in Maine and its inhabitants. The characters are well-rounded, their foibles treated as compassionately as their virtues. As Miles Roby repeatedly puts his dreams on hold, his teen-aged daughter takes on supreme importance for him. Miles' epiphany and the denoument are completely satisfying.
eagle3tx More than 1 year ago
Disappointed. Not interesting, not compelling, not novel -- I agree that the characters are well-written, but I could neither identify with nor have empathy for the majority of them.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
An astonishing study of the livelihoods of middle class America.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I finished reading this book about five years ago...and I still miss the characters to this day. You instantly love them and are pulling for them to succeed from the first time you meet them.
Guest More than 1 year ago
When I first started reading it, I wondered, 'what is this book going to be ABOUT?' By the time I was halfway through, I was so involved with the character's lives that the plot evolved without my realizing it. Engaging, insightful, heartbreaking, a wonderful read, fully accessible to all readers. Empire Falls, a small town economically ruled for many years by the Whiting family in Maine, begins to lose over the years the 'ROYAL' family and their influence. The true power lies not with this wealthy family, but with the force of HUMAN WILL POWER 'whether a WHITING or a NON-WHITING'. The constant question that arose: what WILL these characters do now with his/her given challenge?
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is one of the best books I have read. The chararcters are well developed not only in their strengths but also their imperfections and shortcomings. The plot and sub plots come together nicely and meaningfully in the end
Guest More than 1 year ago
Richard Russo's 'Empire Falls' is so simple, so sweet and so movingly beautiful that even the grayness of the town the story is set in seems a bit brighter. I got a chance to shake Russo's hand when he visited Milwaukee a few years ago. I had to thank him for writing what is quite possibly the first great book of the 21st century. Once you start reading, you'll never stop. The characters in this book are so vivid, you'd think you know them personally. I just reread this book about a month ago and, like the first time, it killed me to close upon the final page. Kudos to Russo!
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is one of the best books I have read. Incredible story that is wonderfully written. The characters are real, gritty and true. The 'Amazing Catch' from Miles, gotta love it. It reminds me of 'Winter of Our Discontent' by Steinbeck. But to me the charaters in Empire Falls are more developed and seperated rather than seeming like one big personal allegory. Falls is the story about Miles, the good (and unsexy) man that has had some bad breaks. Give it a read. It is very good.
Guest More than 1 year ago
My husband and I both love to read, but we don't always read the same thing. One day, out of desperation with nothing to read, I picked up this book, not realizing that I struck on a gold mine. I have all Richard's books, I have read, Nobody's Fool, and am now Reading Straight Man. Richard Russo is a gifted writer and I enjoy his books very very much!
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book has all the makings of a great novel. After you read it, you will understand why it won the pulitzer prize. The characters have a depth that is exceptional. You won't be disappointed with the time you spend reading this one!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Richard Russo creates a highly realistic fictional world that anyone who has lived in a small town can relate to. The story and characters are so tightly knit and carefully animated that one cannot help but to become immersed in Miles Roby's life and the lives of everyone in Empire Falls. What I like best about this novel is the way in which Miles 'comes of age' himself. Nothing pretentious, cliche, or ordinary about how, at 42, Miles finally overcomes the one mountain that has been holding him back. What a great study of human character...Russo's observations of human behavior are precise and well-developped.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Is that 1:30 p.m. pacific time?
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silverfox67 More than 1 year ago
Great novel of small town in Maine dominated by a wealthy, powerful, ruthless woman bent on revenge against the manager of a diner she owns. The characters are well drawn which gives a good understanding of the forces influencing their lives. These characters are a wide variety of ages and circumstances who come together to create a compelling story that ranges all over the emotional map. Very human story in which each character will evoke a reaction from the reader. Hard to put down. Look forward to reading other books by Russo.
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Enjoyed this book
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The town, the characters and the feelings therein are all easy to identify with. This book is highly readable and leaves you thinking about the characters far after you are finished with it.
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