Today, we travel across the country, from Idaho to Maine. Where is our stop? Empire Falls, Maine. (Skowhegan was one of the towns used for the filming of the mini-series Empire Falls and had a restaurant named the Empire Grill for a time.) The book is obviously, or maybe not so obviously, Empire Falls by Richard Russo.
The novel follows several characters, Miles Roby, his daughter Christina (Tick), his father Max, his wife/ex-wife, Janine, and his “patron,” the infamous Francine Whiting (Mrs. Whiting). Miles is struggling to make his way through life while pushing his daughter to do better than he did, a college drop-out and disappointment to his mother. Tick is dealing with the consequences of her parents’ impending divorce and struggling to find herself as she attempts to break away from a bad relationship. Max wants freedom. He doesn’t want anyone to look down on him or tell him what to do. Janine wants to feel beautiful and satisfied, but goes about it in all the wrong ways. Francine… She wants revenge.
Perhaps a more interesting synopsis could be found in the first of two journals I wrote as we read this novel (no spoilers, don’t worry):
“Based on the first two readings of the novel, I would say that Russo is painting a very accurate, beautiful picture of small-town America. This is not to say that small-town life has some sort of picturesque perfection, but that Russo includes the details that if neglected, would make the novel flat and unrelatable by their absence. His methods of characterization are engaging. I have found out more about Miles and his life from Janine, Tick, his memories, and his conversations with his family and Mrs. Whiting than he has revealed on his own.
I find Miles’ conversations with Mrs. Whiting particularly interesting because she seems to know exactly how to get at the core of his nature. She also knows how to use his personality and knowledge of her ability to uncover his traits to her advantage. I wonder why she has been allowing him to run the Empire Grill for all these years, and I’m starting to expect it has something to do with Cindy (Mrs. Whiting’s daughter) and her love for Miles.
Cindy seems to be tied to Miles in a variety of ways, but what I notice most about her is how she epitomizes the desire to want what you can’t have. Charles Beaumont Whiting wanted a different life, but instead of trying to get it, he kills himself. Miles wants his marriage back together, but he also wants Charlene and the Empire Grill, none of which are within his power to obtain (unless he were to actually try). Tick wants to be her own person, yet she goes back to Zack Minty. John Voss probably doesn’t want people to beat him up anymore, but he doesn’t try to stop them. Janine wants a fresh start, and she is so close to getting a sort of one, but something is making her doubt her decision. Empire Falls is full of people who can’t get out of the rut in which they are stuck.”
This book is another gem I found in a reading list. Empire Falls is a book I would like to revisit. I enjoyed Russo’s description of small-town America, a culture in which I grew up. I also found it easy to identify with Miles. It is not his nature to confront people or say how he feels, and he is rather religious. Russo pulled me into the story, and I know the ending, or what came close before the ending, had my heart racing in my throat. The characters and the story are not easily forgotten because the speak so clearly of modern life in a small town.
When I was writing a paper on the first novels we took, I chose to focus on the idea of broken homes and abandonment. That theme is prevalent throughout this novel. A character who is introduced later, John Voss, exemplifies the idea of the consequences that can from living in a broken home or being abandoned. Tick demonstrates it as well, and so does Miles, having lost his mother soon after he dropped out of college. I see more and more of this in the modern world, and I can see the consequences on the news and in my own life. Russo captures the tragic nature of what may result from childhood pain.
I highly recommend Empire Falls. It’s clever, heartfelt, and relatable. I didn’t feel a sick sense of disillusionment when I finished, but it still spoke to me and gave me heavy material to consider. Would I recommend it to a teenager? No. (None of my Twentieth Century American Literature novels should be considered appropriate material for any high school student. There may be some who can handle heavier material, but they should never be taken in a classroom setting.) I would, however, recommend it to everyone else.