I’ve been picking up Richard Russo novels at the bookstore for years and putting them back down because I wasn’t sure I’d like the subject matter, but now that I’ve read Empire Falls, I wish I’d been reading them all along.
Miles Roby’s life hasn’t been going too well. He quit college to run a diner in his dying home town in Maine when his mother was ill, and 20 years later he’s still flipping burgers. His wife Janine has left him for her dim-witted personal trainer. He has been in love with one of his waitresses, Charlene, since high school but sees no sign that she returns his feelings. He has an uneasy relationship with the owner of the diner, Mrs. Whiting. The only thing that seems right in his life is his teenage daughter Tick, and she is having problems at school.
Miles’s father is an alcoholic ne’er-do-well who was hardly ever around when he was a child. He comes around when he wants to earn a few dollars or hit up Miles for money. The mill has been shut down for years, and most of the townspeople don’t feel like they have much of a future.
Miles’s brother David is recovering from a drug habit, but his cooking and new ideas have recently been responsible for an increase in the diner’s business, and he wants Miles to move the business to a larger restaurant. Miles has been avoiding a decision. He has only been hanging on because he doesn’t know what else to do and because Mrs. Whiting long ago promised to leave him the diner in her will. She owns most of the town and behaves as if she owns him, too.
Miles doesn’t realize it, but his fortunes have been stymied for years because of events in the past. His only clue to these events is his recollection of a summer spent with his mother on Martha’s Vineyard when he was a small boy.
A pleasure of this book is its myriad of small-town characters and the warm, witty way that Russo depicts them. Russo is skilled at involving you in the fortunes of Miles, his friends, his family, and even his town. This novel is delightful.