Sunday, 3 August 2014

Book Review: Empire Falls

Title: Empire Falls
Author: Richard Russo
Year Published: 2001
Genre: Contemporary drama

Empire Falls chronicles life in what used to be a thriving industrial community in Maine, USA. The Whiting family, who were the drivers of Empire Falls’ economy, have downsized their operations over time, leaving the town in a state of decay. Even so, Empire Falls’ inhabitants remain hopeful that someday, a benefactor will come to reinvigorate the empty mills and restore the town to its former glory.

Our hero, as it were, is one Miles Roby; though he was once among the brightest boys in town, he has somehow ended up flipping burgers at the Empire Grill for the last twenty odd years. At the start of the book, we discover that his wife has left him, and relying on a promise, Miles endures his lot with the hope that one day, the last Mrs Whiting will hand him ownership of the Grill.

Empire Falls paints a poignant picture of small-town life. Each character has their own values, motivations and personalities. Though we may despise some of them, Russo draws each one with great compassion, and we see them all as human. It’s remarkable how realistic they all feel.

Like the town itself, Empire Falls’ inhabitants seem mired in the past, and in their mindsets and obligations. Faced with a myriad of characters trapped in their own lives, you can’t help but reflect upon yours. What are you doing with your life? What do you want to do? What should you be doing? How can you escape? Should you? There are no easy answers to these questions, and considering them is both difficult and soothing at the same time. The very ordinariness of these dilemmas is what makes the book so relatable and so confronting at the same time.

If I have anything to criticise here, I suppose it’d be the final act. The ‘plot twist’ was not particularly surprising, and the slow build of tension within Miles, and its eventual eruption, was almost deliciously satisfying. The sudden ‘event’ and the subsequent ending both seemed abrupt. I don’t know what I expected, but I guess I wanted something more.

While what I’ve described – a case study in stagnation, with no obvious solutions – may seem depressing, what does come through it all is, somehow, a sense of hope. Additionally, a healthy dose of humour suffuses the book and Russo describes the inhabitants of the town with a generosity of spirit. Empire Falls is an acute study of human nature, written without pretension, in plain and gentle language. Highly recommended.

Alex’s Rating: 4.5/5

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