61 pages 2 hours read

Richard Russo

Empire Falls

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2001

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Summary and Study Guide


In Empire Falls, published in 2001, award-winning author Richard Russo focuses his sharp observations on family, faith, and hope for the future in small-town America, where the factories have left, the populations are dwindling, and the prospects are shrinking. Miles Roby almost got out of Empire Falls, but his mother’s illness brought him back a semester shy of graduating college. Now he runs the Empire Grill, a landmark that still anchors the dying town, and takes care of his daughter, Tick. His soon-to-be ex-wife Janine is about to remarry, while Miles is harassed by a small-minded cop and the whims of his patron, Mrs. Whiting, whose wealth controls the town. Awarded the Pulitzer Prize and made into a Golden Globe-winning mini-series starring Ed Harris and Helen Hunt, Empire Falls showcases the trials and tribulations of a middle-aged man traversing life in middle America. All quotations in this guide come from the First Vintage Contemporaries Edition, published in 2002.

Plot Summary

Miles Roby works at the Empire Grill, fending off inane challenges from his soon-to-be ex-wife Janine’s new paramour, Walt Comeau (a.k.a. the Silver Fox) and worrying about his teenage daughter, Tick. At 42, Miles has settled into middle age with little fanfare or fuss, and others see him as reliable, steady, and—in the case of Janine—boring. Yet, underneath the surface, Miles harbors his own set of dreams and secret regrets.

He and his daughter Tick have just returned from a short vacation in Martha’s Vineyard, where Miles’s college friends own a summer house. He would love to buy property there—Tick loves it, as did Miles’s mother Grace when she was alive—but he cannot afford it, as his brother reminds him. His brother, David, also works at the Empire Grill. He is skeptical that Mrs. Whiting, owner of not only the Empire Grill but also most of Empire Falls itself, will actually turn the restaurant over to Miles as she has implicitly promised. Even if Mrs. Whiting eventually allowed Miles to buy her out, the Grill hasn’t reliably turned a profit in years.

Meanwhile, Miles’s father, Max, a ne’er-do-well former housepainter, constantly bothers Miles for money—which Miles is fully aware his father will drink away. Max pesters Miles to let him help paint St. Catherine’s, the church that meant so much to Grace. Miles has volunteered his services to his friend, Father Mark, which Max cannot seem to grasp; the idea of working for free is beyond his capacity to imagine. In school, Tick struggles to make friends, having broken it off with the popular but arrogant bully, Zack Minty. Still, she enjoys her art class, seated amongst other students on the lower rungs of the high school social ladder. John Voss, in particular, is designed to attract the unwelcome attention of Zack and his athlete friends. Tick’s mother, Janine, obsesses over her newly thin body, having shed fifty-plus pounds, while Tick can barely bring herself to eat. Janine is also focused on starting her new life with the Silver Fox, who excites her physically even if he isn’t the most intellectually stimulating partner one could find.

Miles returns from his vacation in a somber mood, thinking over the many roads not taken. He remembers his first trip to the island, taken with his mother when he was a boy of nine. Max did not accompany them on the trip, which Miles finds odd, but he enjoys his special time with Grace—even if their lack of money sometimes feels awkward. While there, his mother meets an older gentleman, Charlie Mayne. Miles suspects that something inappropriate is going on between the two of them, but when they leave the island, his mother assures him, bitterly, that nothing will change. Only after seeing an old photo in the local newspaper decades later does Miles figure out that Charlie Mayne was, in fact, C. B. Whiting, one time scion of the Whiting textile empire and husband of his patron Mrs. Whiting.

This knocks Miles into a tailspin, undoing all of his assumptions about his life and his mother’s life. His mother worked for Mrs. Whiting, caring for her disabled daughter, Cindy, after the suicide of C. B. Whiting. Miles now questions if this was Grace’s penance for the affair. He even wonders if this is why Mrs. Whiting lured Miles back to Empire Falls to work at the restaurant. He decides to throw in his lot—secretly, of course—with Bea, his former mother-in-law, and re-open the kitchen at her tavern, Callahan’s. He has decided to leave the Empire Grill, Mrs. Whiting, and his unpleasant memories behind for good.

Mrs. Whiting doesn’t remain ignorant of events unfolding in Empire Falls, and the health inspectors close down Callahan’s. When Miles goes to confront Mrs. Whiting, he is met instead by Jimmy Minty, local police officer and freelance enforcer who, like his son, is a bully. They engage in a brutal physical altercation, a confrontation that has been brewing since childhood, and Miles is taken to the hospital. Afterwards, it is expected he will be transferred to the jail.

Before he can fully heal or be transferred, Miles is confronted with the most disturbing news a parent could possibly receive: There has been a shooting at the high school. The police chief takes him to the scene, where his daughter has witnessed the shooting but has not been physically harmed. John Voss—the victim of horrific abuse at the hands of his parents—has unleashed his pent-up rage at fellow students and teachers. Three are killed. Miles carries Tick out of the classroom and flees to Martha’s Vineyard. It takes months for her to begin to heal, during which time Miles communicates with nobody other than his brother.

Finally, David urges him to come back to Empire Falls: the old textile factory has been sold to a development company, and the gentrification of what had been a dying town has begun. Miles communes with the spirit of Charlie Mayne, who tells him his mother’s death is his fault—that she and Charlie could have run away together had it not been for Miles. He sobs, reverting to the guilt-ridden boy he had once been. But when he awakens from this trance, he realizes that he must grow up: “It was time to return to Empire Falls” (472).

When he goes back to the summer house where he and Tick have been staying, he learns that Mrs. Whiting has died, drowned in the annual floods that arose, so many years ago, when her husband decided to reroute the river. Miles begins the journey home.