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Empire Falls


Empire Falls Cover



Reading Group Guide

The questions, discussion topics and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group's discussion of Richard Russo's wonderfully evocative portrait of the small Maine town of Empire Falls. Dominated by the Whiting family, founders of the various mills that provided employment for most of the town's residents, at the turn of the twenty-first century Empire Falls is in sharp decline. Its mills are closed, its stores boarded up, its population dwindling. The families that remain live on memories of the past and the shared fantasy that the mills will reopen and the once-thriving town will experience a renaissance. The formidable Mrs. Whiting, widow of the last Whiting son (and rumored to be the richest woman in central Maine), makes no concession to the community's needs or fantasies, however. As the owner of the few viable businesses left in Empire Falls and a dependable if begrudging source of funds for essential town improvements, Mrs. Whiting wields her power over the town and its inhabitants with an iron will.
Miles Roby was once known around town as a young man smart enough to escape Empire Falls. A devoted son, he put his dream on hold when his mother's final illness interrupted his last year of college. Twenty years later, Miles is the proprietor of Mrs. Whiting's just barely profitable Empire Grill, the soon-to-be ex-husband of Janine (who has left him for the slick owner of the flashy new health club) and the proud father of Tick, a bright, loving teenager. Seduced by Mrs. Whiting's promise to bequeath him the grill, Miles stoically submits to her arbitrary, often humiliating demands--until the accidental discovery of a family secret shocks him into a troubling reevaluation of his life and the small town that shaped it. Nothing, however, prepares him for the horrific act that ultimately sets him free.
As he exposes the betrayals and self-deceptions, false hopes and genuine desires that motivate his quirky cast of characters, Richard Russo transforms the story of one town into an unforgettable exploration of the human condition. By turns funny, poignant, satiric and shocking, Empire Falls captures us at our best and at our worst.

1. Richard Russo's description of town of Empire Falls is as memorable and vivid as his portraits of the people who live there. How do the details he provides about the town's setting and its streets, buildings and neighborhoods create more than a physical backdrop against which the story is played out? How does the use of flashbacks strengthen the sense of the town as a "living" character?

2. "One of the good things about small towns, Miles's mother had always maintained, was that they accommodated just about everyone" [p. 21]. Is this an accurate description of Empire Falls? Which characters in particular benefit from this attitude? What influences the level of tolerance Miles is willing to extend to Max Roby, Walt Comeau and Jimmy Minty, all of whom are constant irritants to him? What does he see as the redeeming characteristics of each of them?

3. Why is his relationship with Tick so important to Miles? In what ways is it reminiscent of his mother's attachment to him? How do Grace's expectations for Miles, as well as her ultimate disappointment in him, shape the way he is raising Tick?

4. Even before the full story of Grace and Max's marriage is revealed, what hints are there that Grace was less than the ideal wife and mother Miles remembers and reveres? Why does Miles choose to accept his mother's version of events of their trip to Martha's Vineyard, even though it entails a betrayal of his father [pp. 136-47]? When Miles finally realizes who Charlie Mayne really is, does it change his feelings about Grace in a significant way? Would he have felt differently if Grace were still alive and able to answer his questions [pp.338-9]? How does Miles's own situation—particularly his separation from Janine and his discovery of the relationship between Charlene and David—color his reaction to his mother's affair? How does his brief conversation with Max about Grace and Charlie [p. 373] shed light on the relationship between father and son?

5. Janine calls Miles "The World's Most Transparent Man" [p. 42] and Tick says, "It's not like you don't have any [secrets] . . . It's just that everybody figures them out" [p. 107]. Does Mrs. Whiting share this image of Miles? What evidence is there that she sees and understands more about the "real" Miles than the people closest to him do?

6. How does Russo use minor characters to fill out his portraits of the main figures? What roles do Horace Weymouth, Bea Majeski, Charlene and Otto Meyer play in shaping your impressions of and opinions about Miles, Janine and Tick?

7. How do David's feelings about Mrs. Whiting and the Empire Grill differ from Miles's? Whose attitude is more realistic? Is David's harsh criticism of Miles's passivity [pp. 224-5] justified? What insights does it give you into David's character? Is David more content with his life than Miles is with his own, and if so, why?

8. Charlene tells Miles: "David has this theory that between your mom and dad and him and you there's, like, one complete person" [p. 226]. Has each member of the family selected a particular role, or has it been thrust upon him or her? Is the division of roles a natural part of family life? Which member of the Roby family is the "most complete," and what sacrifices did he or she make to establish a strong individual identity?

9. What does Father Mark offer Miles that he cannot get from his other relationships? Is Miles drawn to him only because he is a priest? Why does Russo depict both priests as flawed men—Father Mark by his sexual longings and Father Tom by his dementia? How would you characterize the impact of Catholicism on Miles and Grace? Does attending church genuinely comfort them, or is it a convenient way of hiding from the problems in their lives and the decisions they have made? In what ways do Grace's confession to Father Tom and the penance he demands affect her character and her outlook on life?

10. Why does Tick befriend John Voss? How does her sense of responsibility for him compare to Miles's feelings—both when he's a child and a grown man—about Cindy Whiting? Are the differences attributable to the circumstances that bring each pair together, or do they reflect something deeper about Tick's and Miles's morality and their ability to empathize with other people? What other incidents demonstrate Tick's understanding of what other people need? Why is she unable to treat Janine in the same comfortable, nonjudgmental way she treats Miles and Max Roby?

11. Would you define Mrs. Whiting as a mother figure for Miles? Does she perceive herself in this way? Does Miles? Beneath their very different personas, what traits do Mrs. Whiting and Grace share? Do they represent strengths and weaknesses usually associated with women? In what ways does Mrs. Whiting's description of her relationship with Grace [p. 435] reaffirm their similarities? Which woman is more honest with herself about her motivations and feelings?

12. All of the marriages in Empire Falls fail in one way or another. Does your sense of who is responsible for each marital breakdown change as the events of the past and present unfold? Discuss the contrast between the way each of these marriages is initially described and the "real" stories: Grace and Max; Mr. and Mrs. Whiting; Miles and Janine. Mrs. Whiting says "Most people . . . marry the wrong people for all the wrong reasons. For reasons so absurd they can't even remember what they were a few short months after they've pledged themselves forever" [p. 169]. How does this assessment apply to the marriages mentioned above?

13. From the almost unimaginable cruelty of John Voss's parents to Mrs. Whiting's coldness toward Cindy, to Grace's emotional withdrawal from David (and to some extent Miles) when she joins the Whiting household, the novel contains several examples of the emotional and physical harm parents inflict on their children. Why do you think Russo made this a central theme of the book? Does it adequately explain, or even justify, behavior you would otherwise find completely unacceptable?

14. Empire Falls traces three very different families—the Whitings, the Robys, and the Mintys—through several generations. What do each of these families represent in terms of American society in general? How do their fates embody the economic and social changes that have occurred over the last century? To what extent are the members of the current generation trapped by the past?

15. What does Empire Falls provide that its residents might not be able to find in another town or city? Does living in a small town necessarily limit the satisfactions people get out of life? Miles says, "After all, what was the whole wide world but a place for people to yearn for their hearts' impossible desires, for those desires to become entrenched in defiance of logic, plausibility, and even the passage of time?" [p. 295]. Is he right? Which characters might have had better, more fulfilling lives if they had moved away from?

16. In contemplating the past year, Tick says, "Just because things happen slow doesn't mean you'll be ready for them. If they happened fast, you'd be alert for all kinds of suddenness. . . "Slow" works on an altogether different principle, on the deceptive impression that there's plenty of time to prepare" [p. 441]. How does this relate to the novel as a whole and the way it is structured? Why has Russo chosen Tick to express this insight?

17. What adjectives would you use to describe Empire Falls? How does Russo make the story of a dying town (with more than its share of losers) entertaining and engaging? Did you find most, if not all, of the characters sympathetic in some way?

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ganymede__, January 12, 2007 (view all comments by ganymede__)
I really enjoyed this book - It's written so well that even if you haven't lived in the Northeast, you know exactly what it's like to live in this town. I couldn't stop turning pages, wanting to read more and more of the well-written, funny characterizations and dialogue. Though I hear there was a movie made from this book, I don't think it was necessary to translate this to film -- the book is vivid and cinematic enough on its own.
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Product Details

Russo, Richard
Alfred A. Knopf
New York
Fathers and daughters
Psychological fiction
Working class
Domestic fiction
General Fiction
Literature-A to Z
fiction;maine;novel;pulitzer prize;small town;family;pulitzer;new england;american;contemporary fiction;literature;divorce;contemporary;relationships;small town life;working class;fathers and daughters;21st century;restaurants;literary fiction;pulitzer pr
Edition Number:
1st ed.
Series Volume:
Publication Date:
Grade Level:
9.65 x 6.25 x 1.5 in 1.7 lb

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Empire Falls Used Hardcover
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$35.00 In Stock
Product details 496 pages Alfred A. Knopf - English 9780679432470 Reviews:
"Review A Day" by , "Richard Russo first made his reputation with a series of blue-collar novels that suggested a more antic and expansive Raymond Carver. But by the time he published Straight Man, in 1997, Russo was clearly interested in breaking new ground, and that foray into academic farce showed off his comic timing and sneaky construction to superb effect. Now comes Empire Falls, the author's most ambitious work to date." (Read the entire Atlantic Online review here)
"Review" by , "Even the minor members of Russo's large cast are fully fleshed, and forays into the past lend the narrative an extra depth and resonance. When it comes to evoking the cherished hopes and dreams of ordinary people, Russo is unsurpassed."
"Review" by , "In a warmhearted novel of sweeping scope....[Russo] shows an unerring sense of the rhythms of small-town life, balancing his irreverent, mocking humor with unending empathy for his characters and their foibles."
"Review" by , "In Empire Falls, the inhabitants seem so real that the smallest incidents are engaging, and the horrors that erupt will catch your breath. Try reminding yourself it's only a book while praying their dreams somehow break into life."
"Review" by , "The crowning achievement of [Russo's] remarkable career."
"Review" by , "Empire Falls is one of those rare novels you don't want to end, and it will surely send newcomers to Richard Russo's earlier books. A reader couldn't hope for much better than that."
"Review" by , "I mean, if I were so unhappy, wouldn't I know?" asks Miles Roby, the hero of Empire Falls, Richard Russo's fifth and most ambitious novel yet. The answer, of course, is not necessarily, and one of Russo's great talents is to make us understand how an intelligent 40-year-old man can fail to recognize his own quiet desperation — and then make us believe that his life can change for the better. Along the way, Russo gives us a panoramic yet nuanced view of the imaginary town of Empire Falls, Maine, showing how the history of one powerful family can become the history of a place. It's the kind of big, sprawling, leisurely novel, full of subplots and vividly drawn secondary characters, that people are always complaining is an endangered species. Yet in part thanks to Russo's deft satiric touch — much of the book is laugh-out-loud funny — it never feels too slow or old-fashioned.

Russo's Empire Falls is one of those small Maine towns that never recovered from the migration southward of the textile manufacturing jobs that created it. The wealthy Whiting family controlled the place for over a century, until they abruptly sold off the last of the Empire Mills, leaving half the population unemployed. Francine Whiting, the conniving widow of the ineffectual C.B. Whiting, who committed suicide years ago, still owns most of the town, though the downtown is largely abandoned and there's no new development in sight.

Sad sack Miles contributes to the town's stagnation by running the Empire Grill for Mrs. Whiting. Mrs. Whiting is supposedly leaving the beat-up restaurant to Miles in her will, and in the meantime she's staunchly opposed to making any improvements. It's as if she wants the place to remain dreary out of spite — much as she seemed to have had some twisted personal motive when she lured Miles away from college and into the job over the protests of his dying mother, the saintly Grace Roby. Grace's greatest hope was that Miles would escape Empire Falls and the small-minded citizens it produces.

Russo takes a wry yet compassionate view of the kind of passivity that has landed Miles where he is. It's never easy, he suggests, to see the long view of your own life. "Under Miles' competent stewardship, the Empire Grill, never terribly profitable, had gone into a long, gentle decline almost imperceptible without the benefit of time lapse photography," he writes, "until one day it was suddenly clear that the diner was unprofitable, and so it had remained for years."

As the novel opens, Mrs. Whiting's manipulations and the Empire Grill's failure are far from the end of Miles' problems. His wife, Janine, has left him for Walt Comeau, the preening owner of a cheesy health club who calls himself the Silver Fox. Walt has taken to frequenting the Empire Grill, challenging Miles to arm-wrestle and asking him to break $100 bills. Miles' daughter, Tick, is in her junior year of high school and seems to be bending under the weight of too many adolescent burdens. She's dealing with a menacing ex-boyfriend as well as the sudden appearance of the odious Comeau, her future stepfather, in her home, while her father is reduced to living in a fume-filled room above the restaurant.

Men like Miles, Russo suggests, are now getting the short end of the stick when it comes to divorce (just as women did in the previous generation). Janine abandoned their marriage, yet she gets to live in their house with her new fiancé, who's renting out his own place and pocketing the checks. And she gets custody of Tick, though Miles is clearly better suited to parenthood. Russo's portrait of the obsessively aerobicized Janine — she's vain, humorless and about as deep as a mud puddle — is among the book's most vicious and most hilarious.

Janine may be an obtuse, self-obsessed pain in the neck, yet the novel leaves open the question of whether she is justified in leaving a marriage that gave her no sexual satisfaction. She left Miles, she says, because in 20 years of marriage she had never had an orgasm, and she's not sure that Miles even understands the mechanics involved. For his own part, as Miles comes ruefully to acknowledge, he never loved Janine. The same inertia that keeps him under Mrs. Whiting's thumb led him to marry, and then remain at a comfortable emotional distance from, a woman to whom he is clearly unsuited. Just what would it take, the novel asks, to get someone like Miles, whose life has been distorted by this character flaw, to change things?

There are glimpses of romantic happiness in Empire Falls, and a few stable long-term bonds, but mainly the novel suggests that people are best off looking elsewhere for consolation. One of those places is religion, and Russo gamely takes on the unfashionable job of showing the emotional pull that the Roman Catholic Church has on someone like Miles. Family ties, if worn lightly, can also be lifesaving, especially when relatives find some shared purpose. (Miles' brother, David, who maimed his arm in an accident after a drug-soaked youth and now works at the Empire Grill, has updated the restaurant's menu and prods Miles to stand up to Mrs. Whiting and expand the business.) But they're often onerous, too (Miles' father is a shabby, exasperating small-time crook, good for laughs but not much else).

As for the vaunted "community" that small towns are said to offer, it amounts, in Empire Falls, to a few friendships and many more simmering animosities and outright feuds that go back generations. When the town itself explodes in a shocking crime (it's "ripped from today's headlines," as they say, but no less effective for that) and Miles finally seems on the verge of escape, I, for one, was rooting for him to get out of that hellhole, and take his bright, wonderful daughter — who's surely one of the most appealing adolescents ever to grace the pages of fiction — with him. But Russo, I think, would have us believe that the more important changes are internal, not geographic, and he makes his case without sentimentality or nostalgia, just compassion for his characters' foibles and deep insight into the startling, sometimes disturbing varieties of human nature. — Maria Russo, Salon.com

"Review" by , "He stands alone as the Stendhal of blue-collar America....There are bound to be other, flashier novels published this year, but very few will find such a deep, permanent place in one's heart."
"Review" by , "Cause for celebration...easily his most seductive book thus far....Rich, humorous, elegantly constructed, rooted in the bedrock traditions of American fiction."
"Review" by , "The history of American literature may show that Richard Russo wrote the last great novel of the twentieth century....Empire Falls holds the fading culture of small-town life in a light both illuminating and searing. It captures the interplay of past and present, comedy and tragedy, nation and individual in the tradition of America's greatest books."
"Review" by , "He keeps readers riveted."
"Review" by , "Russo's command of his story is unerring, but his manner is so unassuming that his mastery is easy to miss. He satisfies every expectation without lapsing into predictability, and the last section...explodes with surprises that also seem, in retrospect, like inevitabilities....One of the best novelists around."
"Synopsis" by , In this droll, unsentimental, and occasionally hilarious novel, Richard Russo tells the story of a big-hearted man who becomes the unlikely hero of a small town with a glorious past but a dubious future.<P>The one (barely) viable business in Empire Falls, Maine, is the diner where Miles Roby has worked for twenty years, a job that cost him his college education and much of his self-respect. What keeps him there? It could be his bright, sensitive daughter, Tick, who needs all his help surviving the local high school. Or maybe it's Janine, Miles' soon-to-be ex-wife, who's shed fifty pounds and taken up with the noxiously vain health-club proprietor. Or perhaps (most gallingly) it's the imperious Francine Whiting, who owns everything in town — and believes that includes Miles himself. With Empire Falls Richard Russo cements his reputation as one of America's most compelling and compassionate storytellers.
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