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Once upon a time, Empire Falls was a booming metropolis with a prosperous mill and shirt factory. Now the industry and its income are long gone. There's not much left in the central Maine town except for a few colorful characters which are the subject of Richard Russo's entertaining tale of the same name.
Miles Roby managed to leave Empire Falls after high school. A family emergency summoned him back 20 years ago, and he's been stuck there ever since working as the manager in the local diner. Janine Roby is Miles's soon-to-be ex-wife. She blindly believes the grass is greener on the other side, and plans to get remarried as soon as possible. Miles and Janine's 16 year-old daughter, Tick, plays the part of disenchanted teenager who is wise beyond her years.
There are several other townsfolk who makes appearances throughout the novel. Their actions and reactions add detail and humor to the plot.
A story about a small town is a hard sell. However, Russo has mastered his pitch, painting a portrait of the town with words. The author lets the characters stand alone, and develops a unique identity for each one. The result is a remarkable cast and vivid prose which places readers smack in the middle of this drowsy town.
Russo has a knack for creating entertaining characters. He showed this talent in Straight Man, which is just as intriguing as Empire Falls but slightly funnier. It's another Russo book I highly recommend.
Well into the narrative, Russo takes a sharp turn down a path that doesn't quite match the earlier portion of the tale. I found it tough to switch gears and stomach the surprise. However, my unease was not enough to spoil the story.
Empire Falls is not your standard drugstore paperback. It's a thought-provoking work that rises above today's spoon-fed fiction. Read it when you have the time to appreciate a good story. If you don't believe me, just ask the folks who voted it best novel of 2002.