Empire Falls by Richard Russo

The moment I started reading Empire Falls, I knew that I was in for a treat. A richly described prologue made me wonder if this isn’t the first chapter itself. As soon as I invested my emotions into a central character, in the prologue, the author gently led me to its main protagonist in the actual first chapter, leaving me with this inexplicable urge to know the connection.

Empire Falls is a story about a town, Empire Falls in Maine, USA, and a handful of its inhabitants whose lives are inextricably linked with the town’s bumbling fate. The author, Richard Russo, paints a vivid picture of life at Empire Falls over several decades.

The story’s protagonist is Miles Roby, a rather nice man whose inability to lie is often seen as a weakness by his fellow town mates. Several such vulnerabilities show up from time to time that it’s hard to attribute anything heroic to Miles. Yet, we connect with Miles, appreciate his humane side, and overlook his foolish decisions.

Miles is the manager of a restaurant, the Empire Grill, owned by the most influential family in Empire Falls. He detests as well as respects the owner, Mrs. Whiting, though he hopes to own the restaurant someday.

The meandering Knox River was straightened up by the Whiting family scion, Mrs. Whiting’s husband, through a seemingly convenient purchase of land and marriage with the young daughter of the family who sold the property to him. His authoritative wife, in turn, makes sure that everyone in the town stands in line when she asks them to.

The novel speaks to every generation through its characters and their growth through time, starting with Miles Roby as an innocent nine-year-old boy, all the way till he is a forty-something divorcee with his litany of well-wishers and enemies guiding him through a mid-life crisis. Teenage angst and confusion manifest in his daughter and her friends, and his septuagenarian dad epitomizes senile enthusiasm.

Miles’ situation is complicated by the realization that his teenage daughter, Tick, seems to be slipping by him, growing unfamiliar by the day, as she grows increasingly impatient with her mom, Janine. Moreover, his dad, Max, notwithstanding his senility seems to be forever eking out fun times at his expense. With a younger brother who is only too eager to offer him advice, a childhood rival who is now an officer and keen to put Miles or his brother behind bars, Miles weighs in on his successes and failures only through the eyes of others.

This Pulitzer winning novel has enough intrigue to keep the reader guessing about the plot as well as a few sub-plots. They allow ample time for the reader to ruminate on the vagaries of life. The book has wit and satire though not much humor. The author deals with tragedies in an offhand manner, often through memories, but there is a touching poignancy to these incidents. Affairs, marriages, and divorces complicate the lives, yet romance wafts through like a fragrant spring breeze. The novel has been made into a web series with Ed Harris in the lead, unsurprising, as it comes off as a complete package of emotions, drama, wit, and intrigue.

The novel meanders through a long river of nostalgia, expectations, repentance, envy, regrets, denial, and, ultimately, acceptance. Richard Russo makes sure that the reader travels along this river, with an inside view of the swimmers, paddling smoothly at times, sometimes thrashing about, but always propelling ahead. The one line that can sum up this feeling comes from the novel – “Lives are rivers. We imagine we can direct their paths, though in the end, there’s but one destination, and we end up being true to ourselves only because we have no choice.”

The characters are familiar, and even their internal demons are not that strange, but I was surprised by the intimacy with which the author draws you into his circle of characters. By the end of the novel, you feel that you spent enough time with every character, chit-chatting, seeking counsel, or trading barbs like rivals.

With a strange protagonist at the helm of affairs, we get many insights into human nature. Sample this inference drawn about adulthood – “That, very simply, was what adulthood must be all about – acquiring the skill to bury things more deeply. Out of sight and, whenever possible, out of mind.”

This book employs the flashback trope quite frequently, but I did not feel disoriented at any point.  It’s a long read for a theme like this, but that’s probably an excuse to let us know every character in depth. It is the perfect novel!

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐1/2

Book Name: Empire Falls
Author: Richard Russo
Publisher: Knopf
Book Type: eBook
Pages: 496


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