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3rd March
2009
written by Steph
Winner of the 2002 Pulitzer

Winner of the 2002 Pulitzer

I’m sorry for the hiatus in reviews lately, but the latter half of February saw me in a rather big reading slump.  None of the books I was picking up held my interest for very long, and I just wasn’t feeling as though I wanted to spend my free time reading.  Hey, it happens!  I can’t say that I’m fully out of this funk, but I will say that this book helped a lot, because Empire Falls is a really good book (perhaps unsurprising, given that it won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize). Prior to Empire Falls, I hadn’t read anything by Russo, so I really had no idea of what I was in for when I started this novel.  For what it’s worth, the back of the novel briefly mentions the novel takes place in a small town in Maine, Empire Falls, which has seen better days.  An accurate bit of trivia, but not really all that informative or revealing.  In a way, I think I profited from the relatively terse description on the novel’s back flap, as a good portion of the fun with this novel was just immersing myself in its world and seeing what would unfold next.  At its heart, this novel revolves are Miles Roby, who grew up in Empire Falls and runs the struggling Empire Grill.  Also featured are his teenage daughter, Tick and estranged wife, Janine who is leaving him for the local gym owner, Walt Cormeau.  Behind the scenes, but pulling all the strings is elderly Francine Whiting, the Whiting family being the only prosperous family in all of Empire Falls.  I think it’s fair to describe this novel as a “slice of life” as it generally follows the trials and tribulations of small town people living in a small town in close detail, such that the reader really feels like he or she is there.  Accordingly, we learn of the town’s history as well as the personal histories of this rich cast of characters (there are tons of secondary characters to boot, all of them contributing to the sense that one is reading about a really vibrant and vivid family), and certain secrets are revealed along the way, too.  It’s the kind of novel that operates on the “slow boil” principle – for a long while it seems like really nothing is happening, but eventually you find yourself sucked in as things gradually begin to spiral and suddenly tons of stuff is happening.  At times I felt that maybe Russo could have stood to chop bits here and there – the novel clocks in at nearly 500 pages – but I think it would be difficult for Russo’s characters to resonate and forge emotional connections with the reader if we were afforded a brisker read.  They’ve all spent so much time with one another, so it’s very rewarding to feel at the end of it all that you’ve experienced something along with all of them and have a good grasp of Empire Falls’ denizens.  I think after spending a week or so reading this book, you can’t help but feel connected to the people contained within its pages. That’s not to say that I always liked all of the characters in the novel, not even Miles, the protagonist.  Russo skillfully populates Empire Falls with real people, sometimes maddeningly so, meaning that none of the characters are perfect.  Sure Miles is a nice guy, but he’s also guilt-ridden and a bit of a pushover.  His father’s a bit of a cad and a money grubber, but he always returns to his family when they need him.  Janine may, at times, be ridiculously superficial and bitchy, but she’s also concerned about how to be a good mother and have her daughter like her.  Who is ever just one thing? I always have this preconception that Pulitzer novels are necessarily stoic and serious, with artful but stern language.  With this prejudice in mind, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Empire Falls is funny in a wry kind of way.  I thought the prose would be quiet and gentle, and at times it was, but Russo also likes to point out the absurdity of the mundane, and I liked that a lot.  Take for instance, the following passage, which had me chuckling:
“You mind telling me what you’re doing here, Mr. Roby?” “Yes, I do,” said Miles, who would have been reluctant to even if he’d had an explanation that made any sense.  That a demented priest had called his mother a whore, thereby compelling him to visit the house he’d grown up in, as if his mother, dead these twenty years, might be rocking on the porch, did not strike Miles as the sort of story that would satisfy a man who felt compelled to wear sunglasses on dark, rainy afternoons. (p. 55)
That’s the kind of funny we’re talking about in Empire Falls.  It’s the kind of book where the jokes are nice, but they also, at times, mask the real pain that the characters are clearly experiencing.  Then again, isn’t that often how life is?  We make light of things so that we don’t have to deal with their full force, simply so we can cope at all.  It’s the kind of book where the things that happen are things that do happen to people every day the whole world over, and it examines how these instances define us and how we react and respond and ultimately go on living. Reading the novel, I experienced a wide range of emotions, sometimes being positively tickled by an amusing event and other times gutted by grief.  At times it felt like Russo was juggling a lot of different storylines and a lot of different plot points (some rather heavily foreshadowed), yet I never doubted that he was in control, and again, isn’t this also how life is?  At times very little happens, and at others, our lives are so busy we can barely stand it.  I really felt that the great success of this book was that it paints a very real picture of what it is to live in a small town. More than this though, I think Empire Falls is a really excellent example of good, old-fashioned storytelling.  Russo isn’t exactly the kind of writer who calls attention to his prose, because by and large, I feel he’s more about the story he’s telling and it is his story that makes the novel in the end.  Even without having grown up in a small town, I instinctively connect to and understand that story he’s telling, because for a small town, he deals with the big issues that affect us all: love, living, dying, faith, family.  We see how sins of the father (or mother) are entrusted to the next generation, how the wheel of life continues to turn, and the same old fates and fortunes are dealt out time and time again.  The river that cuts through the town is, I think, a very powerful and apt metaphor for this, and is perhaps best captured by the following passage in 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. (p. 163)
Empire Falls is the kind of novel that is epic in scope, so although at times I begrudged it its many pages, I ultimately felt Russo earned them.  Jeffrey Eugenides won the Pulizter the following year with Middlesex, and having read that earlier this year, I believe that Empire Falls is the better novel and more deserving of the prize (that being said, I found out that this was nominated the same year as Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, and I believe Franzen's book should have won).  It isn’t a flashy novel, but it is honest and substantive, while still entertaining and immensely readable.  I liked it quite a lot.  If you haven’t read it, I recommend giving it a shot.  I definitely will be sure to read Russo’s subsequent novel, Bridge of Sighs, in the future. Rating: 4.5 out of 5

14 Comments

  1. 03/03/2009

    I bought this at a church book sale about a year ago, but I hesitate to pick it up because it seems boring. Maybe one of these days.

  2. 03/03/2009

    It has a slow start, and the stuff that’s printed in italics I generally found harder to read than the rest of the novel, but I really wouldn’t say this is a boring read. I think due to its length it takes a while to warm up and get involved in the story, but you really do get involved in the story – as the book progressed, I found myself reading it in larger chunks, as I got more and more engrossed.
     
    If you do give it a try one day, I’d love to know your thoughts on it.

  3. 03/03/2009

    I’m glad you’re half out of your slump! I’m slowly getting out of mine with Dorian Gray.

    (Secretly, what I think I really need is another Harry Potter marathon :D)

  4. 03/03/2009

    Dorian Gray is a great short story/novella, so I could definitely see how it would get you out of your slump (or at least help). Wilde’s prose is so playful and accessible, which is always nice!
     
    I’m a bit at a loss as to what to read next. I was complaining earlier today that the downside to having so many unread books about the apartment is that I never know which one to tackle next and suffer from choice paralysis. A terrible problem to have, I know… 😉
     
    Harry Potter marathons always cure all! When I fell ill near the end of last year, I gobbled down the last two books and was much the better for it!

  5. 03/04/2009

    I really enjoyed Empire Falls when I read it a couple of years ago – very good storytelling, I completely agree. I did think the ending was a bit of cheating, however, because instead of wrapping things up he kind of made a very sharp and unexpected turn. But I don’t think it affected my overall appreciation for the book. I’ve heard wonderful things about Straight Man and Bridge of Sighs, both of which I’d like to read.

  6. 03/04/2009

    Verbivore, I do agree with you that the sharp turn he takes was quite unexpected (although I do think it was slightly hinted at) and was a bit extreme. It very much changes the tone of the novel and is a bit inconsistent with everything else that’s been developed. It is one of the things that made me think the novel had a whole lot going on, but overall I still really liked it. I’m not sure that Russo really needed the plot point we’re talking about, but it didn’t ruin my experience of the novel regardless, much like yourself.

  7. 03/04/2009

    Ever since reading this book (which was awhile ago) I have wanted to read more Russo. I think I might go with Straight Man, but will be looking forward to your review of Bridge of Sighs. I think he has an understated elegance that’s not common of many authors these days.

  8. 03/04/2009

    I haven’t really looked into Straight Man (is that the one about the university professor? If so, the synopsis did make it sound interesting!), but have heard more about Bridge of Sighs, I guess because it is Russo’s most recent novel. I did really enjoy the writing style in Empire Falls; there was a playfulness to it, and even though it was a long novel, I felt didn’t feel as though he was long-winded or verbose. I thought his writing was very grounded and he doesn’t rely on literary pyrotechnics, and I appreciated that. I think his novel got a bit off course at the end, but overall, I thought it was well plotted and well paced, and I’d like to see more of what he can do.

  9. 03/05/2009

    Thanks for the insightful review, Steph. This reminded me a bit of how I felt about The Shipping News. I’ve been thinking of reading Bridge of Sighs before, but have been very reluctant. I might try Empire Falls first, then.

    Choice paralysis.. that happens to me, too. Isn’t that ironic? Overflowing TBR pile and yet nothing to read! Lol. What I do when that hits me is grab a bunch of books and start them all at once. Whichever grabs me the most is the one I then read.

  10. 03/05/2009

    I’ve never read The Shipping News – everything I recall reading about it was pretty negative (I’ve heard it’s very boring), but I take it that you enjoyed it? I’ve always been curious about it, but scared because of the aforementioned “boring” criticism. Actually, now that I think of it, some of the sleuthing I did on the internet after finishing this book did offer up Proulx as an alternative to Russo, so I think your comparison is probably spot on!
     
    Yeah, I don’t know what to say about my indecisiveness when it comes to picking new books. Right around the time I’m winding down a novel, I generally have 5 or 6 books in mind that I could read next… and then I finish the book and don’t want to read any of them! Instead, I generally feel like I want to read something I don’t own. So far I’ve been pretty good though and have been sticking to things that are on our shelves/floor. 😉

  11. 03/05/2009

    I thought The Shipping News was boring, too, as the movie made it seem that way.. until I read it! True, it’s small-town life and looks as if nothing really is happening, but the writing style of Proulx is light and not at all boring. So the story could potentially be boring, but her writing made it not so. I only read that book because I couldn’t find a book with X on the author’s name for the A to Z challenge, haha. I’m glad I read it.

  12. 03/05/2009

    Ok, well, I’m going to try The Shipping News at some point then! I don’t mind small-town novels, so that won’t be a barrier for me. I find that good writers can make almost anything interesting and engaging!

  13. 03/05/2009

    I love this book! I’m so glad you enjoyed it. I have Bridge of Sighs sitting on my shelf, and I think it’ll be the same kind of read. He has another book, The Straight Man, that is very funny. It’s about academic life, but has the same sort of characters…and while I’m blathering on, the movie version of Empire Falls wasn’t bad either. Ed Harris, Paul Newman…

    I second reading The Shipping News. I never saw the movie, but the book was wonderful. 🙂

  14. 03/05/2009

    Priscilla, I suspect you might get around to reading Bridge of Sighs before I do, so I look forward to your thoughts on it. Given that I live the academic lifestyle, I am interested in Straight Man, as well (and I want to check out MOO by Jane Smiley, too).
     
    I’ve got the HBO miniseries of Empire Falls next in line on our Netflix queue, so I’ll probably write about it on the site once we’ve actually watched it! So far I’ve heard it’s pretty good, though for obvious reasons, it wasn’t as in-depth.
     
    That’s two for The Shipping News! I’m definitely going to check it out.

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