Empire Falls by Richard Russo

Empire Falls review

I finally finished it!

So, a while back Rory mentioned how much she loved this book called Empire Falls, and then recently Katie read it and reviewed it and liked it, and so clearly I HAD to read it. And I have. And you have no idea how much it pains me to say that I actively disliked this book – don’t hate me, guys!

Rory also mentioned recently why she usually includes personal tidbits in reviews, and how she likes to think about how her own experiences might have influenced her opinion of a book, and I think that’s worth me kind of doing here.

I’ve said it before, but I’m not really the nicest person. Well, it’s not that I’m not nice, I guess, but rather I’m much more assertive than I was back when I was 19 or so. Then I learned how to have a backbone, and to just generally stand up for myself, be more honest (even when the truth hurts), and kind of just not put up with things that I shouldn’t have to. A BIG part of this was learning to stand up to my dad. Some of you know a bit about my dad already, but basically he was a drug addict for most of my life, and he was also always pretty terrifying. Dude had/has a BAD temper, and ever since I started working at the age of 16 he was able to hound me and get money out of me, something he rarely tried with any of my siblings. And it SUCKED, and it took me until about the age of 20 or 21 to finally be able to stand up to him – not to just lie and say that I don’t have enough money or I’m too busy to give him a ride, but just to say NO. My father is not a good person – he loves me, and I love him of course, and he’s much better now than he used to be (not on crack, for example), but he’s still unreasonable and hot-tempered. He still has a sense of entitlement I’ll never understand. But the difference now is that I fight back, and that’s something I’m glad of. I’m glad I finally grew a backbone, and that I’m not afraid to argue back or say no when I don’t want to do something. I just don’t have the same tolerance for bullshit that I did 6 years ago.

Anyways, that part of me – the part that got tougher, and a bit meaner, but happier for it – might be the reason why this book was frustrating to me.

So Empire Falls is about a town called – wait for it – Empire Falls! that has seen better days. It used to be a bustling town, but when the textile mill and shirt factory closed, the town lost it’s luster and never got it back. There’s only one rich family in town, the Whitings, and they own just about everything there is worth owning. Miles Roby, our main character, is the grill cook and manager at Empire Grill, the town’s only real functioning restaurant. His wife Janine is leaving him for a gym club owner, his daughter Tick is navigating the confusing waters of high school, and more and more Miles is looking at his life and wishing he could make a change.

This book was wordy and long, much longer than it needed to be. Now, I can get into a wordy book with little action, as long as there are some great, interesting characters. But these characters KILLED me. Miles is the token “good guy”, the one everyone agrees is just a genuinely good person. But he’s also a doormat who lets everyone walk all over him, and that frustrated me. A lot. His wife Janine – oh my god, I have two pages of notes complaining about her. UGH. Tick, the daughter, was okay until she started to exhibit a couple of the traits in her parents that I’d come to be annoyed with. And Max Roby, Miles’s (Miles’ ?) father, reminded me SO MUCH of my dad. Max is an alcoholic that constantly demands, manipulates, or steals money from people to fuel his addiction and everyone just acted so OKAY with it. A few people were disgusted and tried to keep their distance, but a lot of people were just “Oh, that quirky old man Max. Silly guy.” From what I told you about my dad, you can probably tell why this rubbed me the wrong way.

The most interesting and sympathetic characters, ironically enough, were the two semi-villians of the story – Francine Whiting, the rich lady who owns and manipulates everything in Empire Falls, and John Voss, a deeply disturbed kid at Tick’s school. I couldn’t like them, but they were the only characters who seemed to have real reason and motivation for being the way that they were.

I wanted to like this novel. I really did. And even though it was slow going, I was keeping an open mind about it until about halfway through the book. That’s when I couldn’t ignore any longer how much the characters were driving me insane and I was getting impatient at there being so little action. I plowed on, and things pick up A LOT in the last 100 pages, but by then it was too little, too late.

So, check out Katie’s review and head on over to Rory’s blog to chat with her, because they both liked it and according to the Amazon reviews, a whole lot of people agree with them. I’m in the minority here, but I think my own personality and experiences probably have something to do with that.

Sarah Says: 2 stars

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18 comments

  1. And if we all liked the same books, life would be oh-so-boring! I happened to really like this one, but I read it eons ago, right before it was published (2001?) and had no idea what I was getting into. Like you, I had less of a backbone back then. 😉

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    1. “And if we all liked the same books, life would be oh-so-boring!”

      That’s the truth! But some part of me still feels a little bad when I don’t like one that my fellow bloggers loved. I wonder how you’d feel now if you re-read it? Some books change for me upon re-reading later on.

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      1. I often wonder the same thing about most books I have a strong reaction to: would I still love it if I read it 10 years from now? Would I still think it sucked if I’d read it 10 years previously? Too bad there’s not world enough and time for that.

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      2. Too true. There are some books that I didn’t like that I kind of want to re-read just to see if my opinion would be different, but I have so many new books to read! And it’s always risky re-reading an old favorite, because what if I don’t like it the second time around?

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  2. I’ve never had the slightest inclination to read this book, so I’m glad to hear you didn’t find it appealing. I’m also glad to hear about your backbone situation as I, too, have had to do the same in dealing with my own father. My dad’s particular addiction is lying, women, and filing for bankruptcy every few years. I like knowing others have complicated relationships with their parents like me. Better luck with the next book!

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  3. This is on my shelf and I have tried to read it a few times but never got past the first few chapters. I think it can be hit or miss when characters come too close to home. I seem to either commiserate or be really annoyed! It’s hard to find that middle ground.

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  4. Dude. It never bothers me when you disagree with me about a book. Personal experience plays SO MUCH into how we interpret characters- I really really wanted John Voss to be saved because I want so badly for broken brains to be fixable. I totally agree with you on the “where the heck is he going with this” feeling and then BLAMMO end of book. I still liked it, but I can see your point. Anyway. You and I? We will always have Outlander.

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    1. I wanted John Voss to be saved too. But then when the reporter shared what he had seen, and was just like “Oh shit, there’s no hope for this kid. Dammit.” I felt so bad for him though.

      Outlander, INDEED.

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  5. I understand how our interpretation of a book can depend so much of personal traits and experiences. I am pretty sure there are a few books out there that I acknowledge, are good books (as in, well made), but because of some personal factors I either can’t connect to them or am outright annoyed by them.

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  6. I picked up this book at a library sale a few years ago and never got around to reading it (and then subsequently re-donated). So while I’ve heard good things about it, there was probably a reason I didn’t end up reading it. And thank you for sharing your personal story – it puts the book into context in terms of your feelings toward it. And good for you for standing up for yourself!

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  7. I am so glad someone else struggled with this book. And thank you for sharing your personal story and how it related to the book. I think we all approach books with our life experiences and how a book affects you can often be a big part of what you bring to it. Though that said, I couldn’t finish this book but only for shallow reasons- I just didn’t connect to it and didn’t find it interesting. Here’s hoping your next read is better:).

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