Summary and book reviews of Empire Falls by Richard Russo

Empire Falls

By Richard Russo

Empire Falls
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  • Hardcover: May 2001,
    512 pages.
    Paperback: Apr 2002,
    512 pages.

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Book Summary

Richard Russo--from his first novel, Mohawk, to his most recent, Straight Man--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 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 poor alike. 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.

PROLOGUE

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...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
The questions, discussion topics and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group's discussion of Richard Russo's wonderfully evocative portrait of the small Maine town of Empire Falls. Dominated by the Whiting family, founders of the various mills that provided employment for most of the town's residents, at the turn of the twenty-first century Empire Falls is in sharp decline. Its mills are closed, its stores boarded up, its population dwindling. The families that remain live on memories of the past and the shared fantasy that the mills will reopen and the once-thriving town will experience a renaissance. The formidable Mrs. Whiting, widow of the last Whiting son (and rumored to be the richest woman in ...
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  • award image

    Pulitzer Prize for Letters, Drama and Music
    2002

Reviews

Media Reviews
New York Times

. . . 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..... 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.

New York Times

. . . 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..... 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.

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

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

Publishers Weekly

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.

Reader Reviews
Robert Stanley

Derivative, repetitive, with fine writing skills.
Discovering something new or something deep is one of my thrills in reading. It seems some in the literary crowd do not share those criteria, but admire mimesis more than insight.

Kathy

Yawn
This was perhaps the worst book I have ever read. It is pointless and boring to an extent i did not believe possible. I need to write an essay about a theme in this book and I don't even remember anything worth mentioning! Terrible! I literally had ...   Read More

Dr. Joseph Johnson MD

I fell to sleep after reading the first 3 pages
From the very beginning , the story is very BORING and unbelievable. After reading the first 3 pages with great difficulty we ALL simply fell to sleep from extreme boredom.

Immy

Empire Falls
I'm fourteen years old don't live anywhere near America but still loved and understood Empire Falls. Russo effortlessly manages to convey his ideas through this book without forcing you to agree with them. Once you have read this book it is easy to ...   Read More

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