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Miles Roby is the manager of The Empire Grill in the heart of Empire Falls, Maine–or what’s left of it, anyway. This once-thriving industrial town is dying now that the factories have all closed. Empire Falls still has a tightly-knit, optimistic community though. There are constantly rumors about new buyers for the factories. Miles feels as if he’s the only skeptic, watching from behind his counter as his town is slowly sinking.
I’m finding this to be a really hard review to write. That’s because as I read the book, I didn’t really feel like I was reading fiction. It seems like a new factory closes somewhere in my area weekly (not really, but it’s not been great) and these characters felt like neighbors. None of them are perfect, and they’re all struggling with things that we can relate to. I feel like I’m trying to write a review of small-town, blue-collar American life, and that’s not something that I review, that’s just something that we live.
And I guess that I couldn’t really give Russo a higher compliment than that. Sure, there are things that I didn’t necessarily enjoy, but when a book is so spot-on that you feel like you’re reading about the next town over, there’s not much else to say.
There were times when I laughed (Father Tom and Max Roby were always good for that), there were times when I was a little heart-broken, there were times when I felt victorious, and there were times when I was beyond horrified. I really did not see the stuff at the end coming. It was one of those things that always happens “somewhere else,” so when I had lost myself enough to feel that I was a part of Empire Falls, it was shocking that it happened “right here at home.”
I really like Miles and his daughter, Tick, but they weren’t perfect by any means. They were funny and doing their best. Miles adores Tick and would do anything for her. I never knew quite what to think of Mrs. Whiting, the rich old woman who practically owns the whole town. She came across as heartless because she really was, but she also saw with a clarity that few of us possess. I have to give her credit for saying what she thinks. Otto Meyer was another character that I really liked, but I wish he’d had a bigger part. I like the way the relationships between characters were constantly shifting, the way they actually do in real life. I liked how Miles’ relationship with his mother is echoed in his relationship with Tick.
There was at least one big revelation that I saw coming from a long way off. I obviously didn’t see everything coming though, or I wouldn’t have been shocked at the end.
I recommend this if you’re in the mood for a good look at life in a small, dying town. I’ve made it sound depressing, but that constant thread of hope never quite fades away.
Read an excerpt.
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