“Empire Falls”: Small Town, Big Drama

If You Like…

  • Small-town feels
  • Big life drama
  • Unexpected heroes
  • Award-winning situations

Then You’ll Like…

Empire Falls by Richard Russo

romanticRunning my fingers through my library, both digital and on the shelf, I came across an old tome from a college class years ago. Empire Falls by Richard Russo is a Pulitzer-prize winning novel, so you may be expecting something mind-blowing and existential. But Empire Falls takes a different approach. It’s theme and meaning is sneaky, simmering on the back-burner while petty dramas take to the fire. But by the end of the last page, you understand why this book deserved all the awards.

What sets the novel apart is your low expectations at the opening. Empire Falls is about the titular small town, located in Maine, an unassuming part of America. Our main character, Miles Roby, is the owner of the local Empire Grill, in the process of divorce, and harassed by the town royalty in the form of the Whiting family. He’s a rather unexpected main character, where even the other characters don’t expect much from him except for a handout or an second opinion. He’s joined by an equally unassuming daughter nicknamed “Tick,” a policeman past his prime named Jimmy Minty, his soon-to-be-ex-wife Janine, who gets in bed with the town’s “Silver Fox.”

But that’s why I ended up loving this book so much, by how unassuming it was. By the end of the first chapter, you worry about this unlikely hero: in spite of his geography, drama still seems to find him. The main theme of the novel is hope for a better life, in spite of so much failure. The town of Empire Falls is a place of failed industry, where factories that once fueled the town have closed up shop. It’s citizens now cling to whatever’s left, including each other. They dream of better lives, but hardly have the means and motivation to give up on the town. It may sound like a terribly cliche concept to you now, but Empire Falls illustrates this life in such a way that engages the reader without letting them feel like part of the town. We are outside looking in, safe from the monotonous of the town, but still engrossed in the lives of these characters. It makes us analyze our own lives, making us question our commitment to our paths, our families, or our dreams.

One small theme that I embraced about this novel was the concept of getting away, even for a little while. The novel opens with Miles Roby returning from a trip to Martha’s Vineyard with his daughter, and the novel also nearly ends with them taking a trip to Martha’s Vineyard to escape the consequences of the incident at the climax of the story. But they still return to Empire Falls, as though they can never escape it.

Empire Falls is a thought-provoking novel that takes a long hard look at small-town life, big-life drama, when and how to escape when you need to. It talks about embracing the barrenness of your life and when to push it away. As you get started on your summer reading list, add Empire Falls to your pile. It’s a quiet read that’ll entertain you on the beach, on the plane, and anywhere else you need contemplation.

Will Make You Feel Like: Taking a backwoods road-trip

Music to Listen to While Reading: 1950’s sock-hop music

Publisher: Vintage Books; Random House, Inc.

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