Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Review: Empire Falls by Richard Russo


Reviewed by Christina

Published: 2001

It's about: It's the late 1990's, and the inhabitants of depressed Empire Falls, Maine, live in the shadow of the past. There are perpetual rumors that the long-since closed factories will reopen soon and the town will be restored to the profitable state it enjoyed twenty years earlier. Miles Roby never believes the rumors. He has managed the humble Empire Grill for fifteen+ years, ever since dropping out of college to look after his dying Mother. Now that his wife has left him for a ridiculous middle-aged gym owner, things look bleaker than ever for Miles.

Despite the repeated failings of his life, our protagonist remains a decent person; his daughter, Tick (née Christina!) gives him purpose in his continual struggle to improve Empire Falls. Miles grows more and more frustrated with his situation until an unexpected sequence of events changes everything in Empire Falls.

I thought: You know, I tend to really like Pulitzer Prize winners. I also really tend to like longish novels with oddball characters, family histories, and significant settings. AND I really like John Irving. So I guess I was set up from the very beginning to dig Empire Falls.

John Irving and Richard Russo: are they the same person? This book had so many of those prototypical Irving plot points- drowning, mutilating accidents, New England, extremely unlikely yet still barely possible events. Russo's straightforward style and wry sense of humor are quite similar to Irving's, too. Not that I'm complaining; you know I love me some Irving. But noticing all those similarities... I didn't develop a real love for Russo as an original writer. I think I would have been more impressed by Empire Falls if I hadn't read any of John Irving's novels.

That said, this is an excellent book. I loved the smooth, no-frills style; it's a very easy yet smart 500 pages of reading. And the characters really keep the story moving forward. Miles Roby provides the main struggle, but the people around him are at least as interesting and well-drawn as he is; they provide the entertainment and variety necessary to keep a reader's interest. With such memorable peripheral characters, I think it's fair to classify Empire Falls as an ensemble drama. Plus, I'm not gonna lie, I love that Miles' daughter is named Christina; she's the same age and "type" I was in 1998-1999. That could be a big part of why she's one of my favorite people in the book, but I also love her because she expresses several insights that outline the novel's overarching themes about relationships between spouses, teenage friends, parents/children, and community members. I haven't read very many novels about 40-year-old adults in which a teenage girl is the one who sees things most clearly. Props to Richard Russo for that.

Verdict: Stick it on the shelf

Reading Recommendations: I feel like this is a good book for introverts. DFW has an essay about how introverts love TV because they get to observe the spectrum of human interaction without the pressure of participating. I think Empire Falls fulfilled that same need for me.

Warnings: Allusions to sex and some language. Also a bit of violence and some disturbing subject matter. There isn't anything terribly shocking, but I wouldn't particularly recommend this one for a conservative church book club.

Favorite excerpts: “The problem with the contemplative life was that there was no end to contemplation, no fixed time limit after which thought had to be transformed into action. Contemplation was like sitting on a committee that seldom made recommendations and was ignored when it did, a committee that lacked even the authority to disband.”

“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. ”

What I'm reading next: Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis