Empire Falls by Richard Russo: Miles Roby is a man with problems. Twenty years after leaving college to see to his dying mother, he’s still stuck in the also dying industrial town of Empire Falls, Maine, managing the Empire Grill. His wife Janine is leaving him for Walt Comeau, an obnoxious (but apparently great in bed) fitness club owner. Their daughter Tick is dealing not only with her parents’ divorce, but also with the ramifications of breaking up with Zack Minty, one of the most popular and powerful students at Empire Falls High. Miles’s luck at work is no better than in his personal life. Despite the best efforts of his brother David and their waitress Charlene, the woman of Miles’s boyhood dreams, the Grill hasn’t turned a profit in years. He can’t even sell the place and move on, since it belongs to Francine Whiting, along with everything else in Empire Falls. Can Miles find a way to a better future than the grim one he sees ahead?
(Believe it or not, that was probably only half the characters.)
Overall Quality: Fantastic. I know they generally don’t give Pulitzers to bad books, but Empire Falls is truly outstanding. If you tend to like character-driven novels, you will love this. There’s not a lot of action in the first three quarters or so of the book, but through flashbacks and internal monologues, each character is explored in rich detail. Eventually you realize that the author has been very carefully setting up all the dominos and in the last quarter of the book, they start to all fall down. The end is incredibly gripping and intense, though also disturbing in a few scenes.
Bus Readability: Pretty good. The book is a little long for one-handed reading (the paperback has almost 500 pages), but the story itself works pretty well being read in small sections. A word of warning though: once those dominos start falling, it’s a hard book to put down. Watch out for getting so engrossed in the story that you miss your stop being called.
Cocktail Party Conversation Starter: Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward both play major roles in the 2005 Empire Falls miniseries, the last live-action acting by Newman before he died and the last time the couple were both in the same project.
TL;DR: Great book with compelling characters, but don’t miss your stop.
A brief depiction of a sexual assault; description of child abuse; violence against animals; several violent scenes including a school shooting.