Empire Falls (Richard Russo)

5 out of 5 stars

Cut to the Chase:
This is one of my favorite books — frighteningly believable characters who are flawed, layered, and so easy to relate to. These are characters who are middle aged and older, trying to live with the mistakes they made years ago: dropping out of college because of a crush, affairs, unrequited love in many forms… and also trying to reason through a variety of parenting decisions. The town that serves as the setting for this book has its own story to tell — a blue-collar town that is on its last legs.

Greater Detail:
Miles Roby, our protagonist, dropped out of college years ago.. ostensibly to take care of his dying mother (against her wishes). He took a job as a cook at the local diner, and somehow never went back to finish college. Now, he’s overweight, underemployed, and struggling to understand how his life decisions got him to this point — about to be divorced, with a bright teenager who needs quite a bit of love and guidance, a nuisance of a older father, and a dead end job( because he’s been promised that one day, the diner will be his…)

Which leads us to Francine Whiting, one of the villains of the novel (probably one of the most interesting, but least layered, characters). She owns the diner and most of the town, and she seems to derive a perverse pleasure from toying with Miles in particular, though that’s not something that becomes clear until far later.

I’ll admit that if you care, the pacing is definitely… relaxed. Also, several of the more climactic twists are kind of predictable… but I’m not reading this because it’s some mystery novel where I want to guess about the ending. For me, this is as good as it gets: wonderful, lyrical writing that is clear and emotive, and characters that are believable, densely drawn and will stay with you long after the the book is over.

Comparisons to Other Authors:
Though Richard Russo tends to do longer books and Tobias Wolff tends to excel at short fiction, the two do tend to remind me of one another. I think it’s that they both tend to write these kind of middle America books that delve deeply into suburban life and psyches.

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Posted in Literary Fiction

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