The latest Book Group Book ‘Empire Falls’ by Richard Russo has not only won the Pulitzer Prize in 2002, it has also taken me ages to read but with book group books I have made myself read to the end (I have only not done this on two books London Fields and Suite Francaise both of which I loathed, the latter will shock people I am sure) in the hope that once I had managed it would be one of those books where you feel immensely rewarded and are thoroughly grateful that you persevered. Can I at this pint as its so near say I didnt have this cover and think they need to rethink it as this english cover is so boring looking.
In some ways I am but let’s start with the setting. Empire Falls is a sleepy and slowly failing town in Maine (but as we all know sleepy town have dark secrets) a town that is predominantly owned by the Whiting Estate, the head of whom is now Francine Whiting, sadly the story isn’t based on her as it should have been – more of her later. One of the many buildings and enterprises she owns is the Empire Grill, run buy our protagonist Miles Roby.
Miles is stuck in a rut, after coming home from his degree to look after his dying mother he has never left Empire Falls again. He is going through a divorce with the warped Janine, his daughter Tick is a typical teenager, he has an ongoing feud with an old school friend who is now the law, he’s doing up a church, his father is a money grabbing semi-alcoholic and is played like a puppet by Francine whose cat wants to kill him and crippled daughter wants to marry him. That’s quite a character isn’t it? Bizarrely Miles plays second fiddle to almost every other character in the book.
Francine is undoubtedly for me the star of the show and sadly doesn’t feature in the book as much as she should I wanted so much more of her back story. Her cat Timmy (who is a girl) certainly needed to be in it more as it made me laugh which was much needed fabulous light relief. Janine is a wonderful slightly bitter slightly reminiscent ex-wife who has just discovered sex again which led to her affair and shes not letting the object of her new sex life get away and wants to be heading straight down the aisle once more. The women characters were actually by far the best and I think had the novel been written from their aspects the whole way through I would have enjoyed it so much more. But then there wouldn’t have been quite so many twists in the end.
There is one big twist that though there are some seeds of thought dropped along the way was much more dramatic and in many ways darker than anything I could have come up with which has little to do with Miles Roby at all and did make me re-read the page. The other twists involve flashbacks of both the Whiting family and Miles himself and give the book an extra depth in a way. Sadly though despite a wonderful host of characters (Russo from reading reviews is a wonderful character author in general) and the invention of a clever town setting with its mysteries and shock endings the book is far too long and at points became a real effort to read, thank fully the cat would appear during some of these.
I guess the test with a book, and with a new author in particular (by new I mean one you’ve not read before) is if you would read them again. Would I read Richard Russo again, at the moment I would say probably not, however the more I think about the book the more I realise what a clever writer he is and how observant. So maybe he is someone to add to my TBR in 2009 pile, I guess time will tell.