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Books: Empire Falls

I talked The Queen into seeing Spirited Away, and she loved it even though she doesn't much care for anime. She returned the favor by convincing me to read Empire Falls, even though it appeared to be exactly the kind of book I try and avoid. Set in the tiny burg of Empire Falls, starring Mr. Nice Guy, and written by an author with a long string of "relationship novels" to his name, this looked, to me, to be little more than a novelization to some "Hallmark Feelgood Family TV Special". But it did win the Pulitzer Prize, and I reckoned that the entire Pulitzer Prize committee and my wife couldn't both be wrong. So I decided to give it a whirl.

The first third, however, seemingly confirmed my fears. As the story opens, we are introduced to Miles, a put-upon, heart-of-gold sad-sack who is in the midst of a divorce, father to a teenage girl, and indentured to the town matriarch. He also runs Empire Falls' only diner, which means that he (and the reader) is in constant contact with the city's zanier denizens, including The Silver Fox (owner of the local health club and fiancÚ to Miles' soon-to-be ex), the obligatory corrupt cop (who was once one of Miles' best friends), and the town's ne're-do-well layabout (who also happens to be Miles' dad).

Small town + divorce + raising a teen + cast of quirky characters tends to = a book I'm not going to wind up loving. But love it I did. Eventually. I henpecked the novel for weeks as I eked my way through the beginning; I got hooked by the midpoint; And I was sprinting to the finish line by the time I hit page 300.

Unsurprisingly, it's those very things that made Empire Falls so hard to "get into" -- namely, the voluminous backstory and meticulous explanation of the mosaic of relationships -- that make the finale so rewarding. Author Richard Russo clearly has a gift for making his characters almost unsettlingly realistic, and, thankfully, he is not afraid to expose the "flaws" in his ostensible good guys. When the book begins, for example, you can't imagine why Miles' wife wants to divorce him, as he seems to be the nicest guy in the world; as the story progresses, however, it becomes increasingly unclear which side of the line between "nice" and "willfully naive" Miles is on, and you start to wonder what took her so long to dump him. Likewise, Miles' daughter is often shown to be petty, selfish, and entirely too concerned with her current social standing. She is, in other words, portrayed as an honest-to-God teen.

It occurs to me, in retrospect, that many of my favorite books tend to share this quality: they start slow, they heap on the backstory, and they eventually make you care about the characters to such a degree that the finale pays you back with interest on your investment of time. But even recognizing this, the sad truth is that I usually need some external motivator encouraging me to see such books through too the end. In the case of A Prayer For Owen Meany, for example, it was my prior knowledge that John Irving novels are worth the effort. For The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay it was my love of all things Houdini that got me through. And it was The Queen's endorsement of Empire Falls that prevented me from putting it down after page 100. Thank goodness she recommended it so highly. And now I do the same.

Posted on March 04, 2003 to Books


Yeah, that book does manage to hook you, but I hated the ending. I felt let down when Miles didn't ever get to confront the old woman.

Posted by: Jen on March 4, 2003 4:59 PM

By the way, thx for indirectly recommending Spirited Away to me. Excellent movie. Though I thought the ending was rather abrupt. Maybe I just missed sthg.....

Posted by: Paul on March 5, 2003 9:31 AM

After reading Independence Day and The Shipping News I made a resolution to never read a Pulitzer-prize winning novel again. I don't think I'm gonna break it for this one.

Posted by: Johnny on March 6, 2003 9:38 AM

What, are you kidding?! That part in Independence Day where the aliens blew up the White house was AWESOME!!!

Posted by: Matthew on March 6, 2003 9:43 AM

Hey, great review. I read the book a couple months ago and would also highly recommend it but I'm not as eloquent in my reviews as you are. Instead I'll be like "Dude, this book rocked!" and leave it at that.

Posted by: tracy on March 6, 2003 12:36 PM

I read empire falls and apprecite your review. But for a faster, funner read try russo's Straight Man. Now *that* book rocked!

Posted by: drew on March 17, 2003 8:09 AM