In this Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Richard Russo takes us into small town Americana to tell us the story of Miles, a spineless man who takes crap from everybody. Whether he’s negotiating his divorce from selfish ex-wife Janine or trying to save the Empire Cafe from bankruptcy by appealing to the wealthy Francine Whiting, a domineering woman who owns half the town, Miles is the nice guy everyone likes but pities.
Russo’s writing is terrific, but after the first 75 pages, I grew frustrated with the novel. It took me the rest of the book to figure out why this isn’t going on my top 10 list but I think I have it. Empire Falls is a saga. There are enough characters to populate a small town, giving the impression that Russo has indeed told us at least something about every person who lives in Empire Falls. While I think some books benefit from such lush description, this one sinks under the weight of its own verbosity.
Empire Falls is really three books in one: the story of a man’s midlife crisis, the story of a woman’s midlife crisis (if one could call a weekend affair a crisis), and a tragic bildungsroman. Each of these would have made an interesting stand-alone novel and to my mind, the novel would have been stronger had the author stuck to one of these rather than skip between them by way of flashbacks or multiple narratives. Even though this is an overstuffed book, I still craved more information about key plot moments (mostly having to do with the ending, which is why I won’t go into them here). It’s an odd feeling-wanting more and at the same time wanting much, much less.
At the end of the novel, the nice guys are mostly rewarded and the bad guys are mostly punished, leaving me to wonder why the novel provided such realistic, intimate details of the characters if it was going to have a redemptive ending anyway. Something about the relationship between the characters and the plot just didn’t add up. I would recommend reading the first 30 pages (which doubles as a pretty good short story) to get a sense of the tone and pace of this novel. The first pages also provide a learning exercise in world-building and sentence-crafting, the two strengths of the novel. Don’t feel guilty about putting it down if it fails to grab you; this is one disappointing long haul.