Empire Falls

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Overview

With Empire Falls Richard Russo cements his reputation as one of America’s most compelling and compassionate storytellers.

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 ...

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Empire Falls

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Overview

With Empire Falls Richard Russo cements his reputation as one of America’s most compelling and compassionate storytellers.

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.

Winner of the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

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."

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

Janet Maslin
. . . a rich, humorous, elegantly constructed novel rooted in the bedrock traditions of American fiction. [T]his is easily Russo's most seductive book thus far.
New York Times
Ron Charles
In Empire Falls, the inhabitants seem so real that the smallest incidents are engaging, and the horrors that erupt will catch your breath. Try reminding yourself it's only a book while praying their dreams somehow break into life.
Christian Science Monitor
Booklist
In a warmhearted novel of sweeping scope.... Russo follows up his rollicking academic satire, Straight Man (1997), with a return to the blue-collar melieu featured in his first three novels and once again shows an unerring sense of the rhythms of small-town life, balancing his irreverent, mocking humor with unending empathy for his characters and their foibles.
From The Critics
Writer Tom Wolfe charged that "the American novel is dying, not of obsolescence, but of anorexia." The remedy? "Novelists with the energy and the verve to approach America in the way her moviemakers do," with "huge appetites and mighty, unslaked thirsts." For a feast of social realism, the hungry reader might turn to Richard Russo's latest work, a multigenerational epic of rich detail, memorable character and indelible plot. This is the sort of big-theme novel that complainers maintain no one is writing any more, an ambitious throwback to an era when novelists more often looked outward than inward for inspirational nourishment.

In Empire Falls, which is set in a Maine town teetering toward oblivion, Russo introduces a cross section of society's also-rans; trapped between a past of minimal opportunity and a future unimaginable as anything better, characters settle for diminished returns on the dreams of their parents. The lay of this fictional land will be familiar to admirers of Russo's previous books about the blue-collar Northeast, including his 1986 debut, Mohawk, and its 1988 sequel, The Risk Pool, as well as 1993's Nobody's Fool and 1997's hilarious Straight Man.

Even if the title Empire Falls (it's also the name of the town) is a bit too dramatic or obvious, the central imagery of the river in this story finds Russo imaginatively engaging and challenging his readers. "Has it ever occurred to you that life is a river, dear boy?" the controlling heiress, responsible for the closing of both the town's mill and its factory, asks the novel's protagonist. "I suspect that's occurred to anyone who's ever seen a river, Mrs.Whiting," replies Miles Roby. In the novel's prologue, Mrs. Whiting's husband attempts the folly of changing the river's course to suit his whim. The rest of the book explores the possibility of changing the course of one's life, which is perhaps as great a folly—but maybe not, as Miles eventually dares to consider.

Miles, the book's moral compass, abandons a college education that offers a life beyond Empire Falls in order to care for his ailing mother. He comes home to run the Empire Grill for Mrs. Whiting, who has promised him ownership when she dies, though he doubts that she ever will (die, that is) or that the grill would be worth anything if she does. Paralyzed with obligation, he proceeds by numbness rather than nerve, acceding to "the strange decisions a man discovers he's made by not really making them." Miles' only hope—that his teenage daughter will not find herself trapped in Empire Falls—is marred by irony: Miles' mother vowed the same for him.

The soul of the novel lies in the relationship between Miles and his daughter, Tick, whose high school experiences provide parallels with her father's. Easily the most perceptive character (and the only one whose chapters are written in the present tense rather than the past), Tick wonders whether all adults suffer from "some sort of collective amnesia" or whether they are just "fundamentally dishonest." Russo's depiction of adolescence is particularly acute, balancing the love that the father and daughter share with the distance that separates them. And while Miles empathizes with his daughter's generation, he understands the limits to his understanding.

"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," Miles reflects on the teenage temperament. "That, very simply, was what adulthood must be all about—acquiring the skill to bury things more deeply." Such turbulence moves from the plot's periphery to its climactic center, as parents who have failed to save themselves face the challenge of saving their children. Derided by his wife as "the human rut," Miles must accept the responsibility of salvaging his own future if there is any hope for Tick's. He finds the key to that salvation buried deep in the past, discovering the secrets of a town that he thought he'd known as well as his reflection in the mirror.

For all of its traditional pleasures, this is very much a novel of its time, building to a crescendo that calls to mind a contemporary tragedy with a terrifying immediacy. Though the conclusion is as riveting as any modern-day headline, the story's breadth over the span of decades makes it impossible to dismiss its developments as sensationalist plot twists. The narrative progression from borderline farce to bittersweet tragedy, set against the backdrop of a failing factory town, reflects an understanding of what makes seemingly drastic acts not just possible but perhaps inevitable.

Striving to sustain the interplay between the tragic and comic elements of the story, this book doesn't always sustain the graceful precision characteristic of smaller, more carefully wrought novels, ones that concern themselves with interior worlds rather than the world at large. What distinguishes Russo's work is the generosity of spirit he extends to both his characters and the reader. While some novelists satisfy their ambitions by tickling the brain, Russo feeds the hungry heart.
—Don Mcleese

(Excerpted Review)
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In his biggest, boldest novel yet, the much-acclaimed author of Nobody's Fool and Straight Man subjects a full cross-section of a crumbling Maine mill town to piercing, compassionate scrutiny, capturing misfits, malefactors and misguided honest citizens alike in the steady beam of his prose. Wealthy, controlling matriarch Francine Whiting lives in an incongruous Spanish-style mansion across the river from smalltown Empire Falls, dominated by a long-vacant textile mill and shirt factory, once the center of her husband's family's thriving manufacturing dominion. In his early 40s, passive good guy Miles Roby, the son of Francine's husband's long-dead mistress, seems helpless to escape his virtual enslavement as longtime proprietor of the Whiting-owned Empire Grill, the town's most popular eatery, which Francine has promised to leave him when she dies. Miles's wife, Janine, is divorcing him and has taken up with an aging health club entrepreneur. In her senior year in high school, their creative but lonely daughter, Tick, is preoccupied by her parents' foibles and harassed by the bullying son of the town's sleazy cop who, like everyone else, is a puppet of the domineering Francine. Struggling to make some sense of her life, Tick tries to befriend a boy with a history of parental abuse. To further complicate things, Miles's brother, David, is suspected of dealing marijuana, and their rascally, alcoholic father is a constant annoyance. Miles and David's secret plan to open a competing restaurant runs afoul of Francine just as tragedy erupts at the high school. Even the minor members of Russo's large cast are fully fleshed, and forays into the past lend the narrative an extra depth and resonance. When it comes to evoking the cherished hopes and dreams of ordinary people, Russo is unsurpassed. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
People don't mind imposing on a nice guy like Miles Roby. Francine Whiting, for instance, owns most of the struggling mill town, including the Empire Grill that Miles manages for her, though she won't agree to the liquor license that might make it profitable. Francine's disabled daughter, Cindy, has a lifelong crush on Miles and has twice attempted suicide over him. His wife has left him for a flashy jerk, a health club owner who comes to the grill daily to taunt Miles; his ne'er-do-well father constantly nags him for handouts; and his daughter Tick seems to care about Miles, but she is navigating the treacherous shoals of high school, with the school bully determined to win her back and a complete outcast dependent on her for friendship. Reader Ron McLarty doesn't get the Maine accent quite right, but his performance will surely prove among the best of the year. Packed with heart and with wonderfully drawn characters (and a good deal funnier than it sounds), Empire Falls is an excellent choice for any library. John Hiett, Iowa City P.L. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375726408
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 4/12/2002
  • Series: Vintage Contemporaries Series
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 496
  • Sales rank: 133,249
  • Product dimensions: 5.15 (w) x 7.99 (h) x 1.01 (d)

Meet the Author

Richard Russo lives in coastal Maine with his wife and their two daughters. He has written five novels: Mohawk, The Risk Pool, Nobody’s Fool, Straight Man and Empire Falls, and a collection of short stories, The Whore's Child.

Biography

Prizewinning author Richard Russo is regarded by many critics as the best writer about small-town America since Sherwood Anderson and Sinclair Lewis. "He doesn't over-sentimentalize [small towns]," said Maureen Corrigan, the book critic for NPR's "Fresh Air." Nor does he belittle the dreams and hardships of his working-class characters. "I come from a blue-collar family myself and I think he gets the class interactions; he just really nails class in his novels," said Corrigan.

When Russo left his own native small town in upstate New York, it was with hopes of becoming a college professor. But during his graduate studies, he began to have second thoughts about the academic life. While finishing up his doctorate, he took a creative writing class; and a new career path opened in front of him.

Russo's first novel set the tone for much of his later work. The story of an ailing industrial town and the interwoven lives of its inhabitants, Mohawk won critical praise for its witty, engaging style. In subsequent books, he has brought us a dazzling cast of characters, mostly working-class men and women who are struggling with the problems of everyday life (poor health, unemployment, mounting bills, failed marriages) in dilapidated, claustrophobic burghs that have -- like their denizens -- seen better days. In 2001, Russo received the Pulitzer Prize for Empire Falls, a brilliant, tragicomic set-piece that explores past and present relationships in a once-thriving Maine town whose textile mill and shirt factory have gone bust.

Russo's vision of America would be bleak, except for the wit and optimism he infuses into his stories. Even when his characters are less than lovable, they are funny, rueful, and unfailingly human. "There's a version of myself that I still see in a kind of alternative universe and it's some small town in upstate New York or someplace like that," Russo said in an interview. That ability to envision himself in the bars and diners of small-town America has served him well. "After the last sentence is read, the reader continues to see Russo's tender, messed-up people coming out of doorways, lurching through life," said the fiction writer Annie Proulx. "And keeps on seeing them because they are as real as we are."

Good To Know

In 1994, Russo's book Nobody's Fool was made into a movie starring Paul Newman and Bruce Willis. Newman also starred in the 1998 movie Twilight, for which Russo wrote the screenplay. Russo now divides his time between writing fiction and writing for the movies.

When he wrote his first books, Russo was employed full-time as a college teacher, and would stop at the local diner between classes to work on his novels. After the success of Nobody's Fool (the book and the movie), he was able to quit teaching -- but he still likes to write in spots such as the Camden Deli. It's "a less lonely way to write," he told USA Today. "I'm less self-conscious when it's not so quiet."

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    1. Hometown:
      Gloversville, New York
    1. Date of Birth:
      July 15, 1949
    2. Place of Birth:
      Johnstown, New York
    1. Education:
      B.A., University of Arizona, 1967; Ph.D., University of Arizona, 1979; M.F.A., University of Arizona, 1980

Read an Excerpt

PROLOGUECompared 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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Reading Group Guide

1. Richard Russo’s description of Empire Falls is as memorable and vivid as his portraits of the people who live there. How do the details he provides about the town, including its streets, buildings, and neighborhoods, create a more than physical backdrop against which the story is played out? How does his use of flashbacks strengthen the reader’s sense of the town as a living character?

2. “One of the good things about small towns, Miles’s mother had always maintained, was that they accommodated just about everyone” [p. 21]. Is this an accurate description of Empire Falls? Which characters in particular benefit from this attitude? What influences the level of tolerance Miles is willing to extend to Max Roby, Walt Comeau, and Jimmy Minty, all of whom are constant irritants to him? What does he see as their redeeming characteristics?

3. Why is Miles’s relationship with Tick so important to him? In what ways is it reminiscent of his mother’s attachment to him? How do Grace’s expectations for Miles, as well as her ultimate disappointment in him, shape the way he is raising Tick?

4. Even before the full story of Grace and Max’s marriage is revealed, what hints are there that Grace was less than the ideal wife and mother of Miles’s memory? Why does Miles choose to accept his mother’s version of events concerning their trip to Martha’s Vineyard, even though it entails a betrayal of his father [pp. 133–50]? When Miles finally realizes who Charlie Mayne is, does it change his feelings about Grace in a significant way? Would he have felt differently if Grace were still alive and able to answer his questions [pp. 338–39]? How does Miles’s own situation—particularly his separation from Janine and his discovery of the relationship between Charlene and David—color his reaction to his mother’s affair? How does his brief conversation with Max about Grace and Charlie [p. 373] shed light on the relationship between father and son?

5. Janine calls Miles “The World’s Most Transparent Man” [p. 42], and Tick says, “It’s not like you don’t have any [secrets]. . . . It’s just that everybody figures them out” [p. 107]. Does Mrs. Whiting share this view of Miles? What evidence is there that she sees and understands more about the “real” Miles than the people closest to him?

6. How does Russo use minor characters to develop the main figures? What roles do Horace Weymouth, Bea Majeski, Charlene Gardiner, and Otto Meyer play in shaping your impressions of and opinions about Miles, Janine, and Tick?

7. How do David’s feelings about Mrs. Whiting and the Empire Grill differ from Miles’s? Whose attitude is more realistic? Is David’s harsh criticism of Miles’s passivity [pp. 224–25] justified? What insight does it give you into David’s character? Is David more content with his life than Miles is, and if so, why?

8. Charlene tells Miles, “David has this theory that between your mom and dad and him and you there’s, like, one complete person” [p. 226]. Has each member of the family selected a particular role, or have their positions been thrust upon them? Is the division of roles a natural part of family life? Which member of the Roby family is the “most complete”? Did this strong individual identity come at the expense of anything else?

9. What does Father Mark offer Miles that he cannot get from his other relationships? Is Miles drawn to him only because he is a priest? Why does Russo depict both priests as flawed men, Father Mark with his sexual longings, and Father Tom with dementia? How would you characterize the impact of Catholicism on Miles and Grace? Does attending church genuinely comfort them, or is it a convenient way of hiding from the problems in their lives and the decisions they have made? In what ways does Grace’s confession to Father Tom and the penance he demands affect her outlook on life?

10. Why does Tick befriend John Voss? How does her sense of responsibility for him compare to Miles’s feelings, both as a child and as a grown man, about Cindy Whiting? Are the differences attributable to the circumstances that bring each pair together, or do they reflect something deeper about Tick’s and Miles’s morality and their abilities to empathize with other people? What other incidents demonstrate Tick’s understanding of what other people need? Why is she unable to treat Janine in the same comfortable, non-judgmental way she treats Miles and Max Roby?

11. Would you define Mrs. Whiting as a “mother figure” for Miles? Does she perceive herself in this way? Does Miles? Beneath their very different personas, what traits do Mrs. Whiting and Grace share? Do they represent the strengths and weaknesses usually associated with women? In what ways does Mrs. Whiting’s description of her relationship with Grace [p. 435] reaffirm their similarities? Which woman is more honest with herself about her motivations and feelings?

12. All of the marriages in Empire Falls fail in one way or another. Does your sense of who is responsible for each marital breakdown change as the events of the past and present unfold? Discuss the contrasts between the ways each of these marriages is initially described and the “real” stories: Grace and Max; Mr. and Mrs. Whiting; Miles and Janine; Janine and Walt. Mrs. Whiting says, “Most people . . . marry the wrong people for all the wrong reasons. For reasons so absurd they can’t even remember what they were a few short months after they’ve pledged themselves forever” [p. 169]. How does this assessment apply to the marriages mentioned above?

13. From the almost unimaginable cruelty of John Voss’s parents to Mrs. Whiting’s coldness toward Cindy, to Grace’s withdrawal from David (and to some extent Miles) when she joins the Whiting household, the novel contains several examples of the emotional and physical harm parents inflict on their children. Why do you think Russo made this a central theme of the book? Does it adequately explain or even justify behavior you would otherwise find completely unacceptable?

14. Empire Falls traces three very different families—the Whitings, the Robys, and the Mintys—through several generations. What do each of these families represent in the context of American society? How do their fates embody the economic and social changes that have occurred over the last century? To what extent are the members of the current generation trapped by the past?

15. What does Empire Falls provide that its residents might not be able to find anywhere else? Does living in a small town necessarily limit the satisfaction people get out of life? Is Miles right when he thinks, “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” [p. 295]? Which characters might have led better, more fulfilling lives if they had moved away from Empire Falls?

16. In contemplating the past year, Tick reflects, “Just because things happen slow doesn’t mean you’ll be ready for them. If they happened fast, you’d be alert for all kinds of suddenness. . . . ‘Slow’ works on an altogether different principle, on the deceptive impression that there’s plenty of time to prepare” [p. 441]. How does this relate to the novel as a whole and the way it is structured? Why has Russo chosen Tick to express this insight?

17. What adjectives would you use to describe Empire Falls? How does Russo make the story of a dying town (with more than its share of losers) entertaining and engaging? Did you find most, if not all, of the characters sympathetic in some way?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 149 )
Rating Distribution

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(75)

4 Star

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(16)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 149 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 19, 2010

    captures you from the beginning

    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.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 7, 2001

    Russo does it again

    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.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 31, 2013

    Review but do not spoil for the rest please

    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.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 3, 2013

    Disappointed. Not interesting, not compelling, not novel -- I a

    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.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 29, 2012

    Small Town

    An astonishing study of the livelihoods of middle class America.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 19, 2011

    My favorite book of all time

    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.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 20, 2010

    Great Picture of small-town life in the US

    I enjoyed the book and its story of small town going thru what so masny small towns are--the loss of their biggest employer and how it effects everyone. I thought the ending with the troubled kid bringing a gun to school was way too predictable. I had guessed that was going to happen 150 pages before it did. Thoroughly enjoyable---lose one self in the small town which one can really picture

    1 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 27, 2008

    intersting

    Ummm, okay so I had to read this for summer reading and it was an indepth study of not very deep people. However I actualy liked it, I mean it wasnt a page turner but still....

    1 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 24, 2008

    Empire Falls

    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?

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 5, 2006

    Awsesome

    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

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 14, 2005

    One of the BEST books I've ever read

    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!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 14, 2004

    The Unofficial Landfill for Years and Years

    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.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 15, 2004

    My Favorite Book of the Summer

    I've read a lot of books this summer and this one is the best. There are quite a few characters to get to know and by the end of the story you genuinely know them. I was surprised to catch myself laughing out loud. I also liked that the Myles wasn't all about getting the ladies in bed. He was real. The main character was real. Everyone should read this book!

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 10, 2004

    Work Of Art

    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!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 10, 2003

    Empire Falls

    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!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 27, 2014

    Outstanding! Deserved Pulitzer Prize!

    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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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 20, 2013

    Good read

    Enjoyed this book

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 3, 2013

    I loved this book

    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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  • Posted September 28, 2012

    Enjoyed it....

    Written very well, i just enjoyed the story and his writing style

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 29, 2012

    Fantastic.

    Fantastic.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 149 Customer Reviews

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