Thursday, September 30, 2010

Books: Empire Falls by Richard Russo

During the fiction workshop that I took this summer, I wrote a story that I had been thinking about for over a year.  It focused on two girls who were best friends living in rural Maine.  I was extremely focused on two things in this story: one, I wanted the reader to really understand the relationship between these two girls, how close and entangled they were at a time in their lives when they should start to develop their own identities; and two, I wanted to explore the feeling of being stuck in a small town where there are few opportunities but no one seems to leave ( my characters spent a ton of time at the local diner, since one of their mothers worked there). 

The story was generally well-received, even though I knew it needed more work, so I was happy with the feedback.  The instructor noted at the end of his comments: "Have you read Empire Falls by Richard Russo? It's also about a small town in Maine and most of it takes place in a diner." I didn't know much about the book before then so I was surprised that it sounded so similar to the basis of my story (coincidentally, Olive Kitteridge also takes place in Maine.  What a popular state!). 

I picked up a used copy of the Russo book while on vacation (in Maine, where else, right?!) but it took me a little while to get into.  I had a few false starts before I decided to skip the intro which was 20-something pages in tiny italics.  It detailed the history of the wealthiest family in town but without knowing any of these people, it was hard to stick with it.  I'm glad I jumped right into Chapter 1--the book itself is slow at first but it's so worth it.  By the time I was half-done, I couldn't put it down and was dying to know what happened next. It totally puts my own story to shame but makes me want to work on it until it's at least half as good as this novel. 

Everything about the setting is unique, ironically, because most everything is such a usual situation.  A town passed its prime, lots of 'quirky' townspeople, yet no one feels like a caricature.  Not one of the individuals is all good or all bad--they all have relatable traits.  I felt like I knew the town (after almost 500 pages, it should be that way too) and could drive right to it and visit the Empire Grill.  But the best part is that Russo has some surprises in store.  Right when I thought I knew how the book would end, an ending that I thought would be satisfying in its own right, he creates even more tension and a horrific incident that changes the lives of all of his characters. 

Everyone in Empire Falls is familiar in some way--everyone knows someone like Miles, the main character, who is passive to a fault and lets things happen to him without taking much action.  The heart of the story makes readers think about their own lives, how they act or react to things that happen and how to make themselves better people.  I really enjoyed this book and would recommend it for sure.  I will note that every five chapters or so, there is a chapter that recounts the past that is written in tiny italics.  I don't mind italics or tiny print, but reading 20 pages or so of it was distracting.  Keep going, though, and you'll be rewarded at the end, just like the characters in Empire Falls

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