Miles Roby lives in the small town of Empire Falls, Maine. Once a thriving textile mill town, Empire Falls now suffers from lack of economic development. Miles runs the Empire Grill, a job he has held since leaving college to care for his dying mother. He is separated from his wife Janine, who is about to remarry. Miles and Janine share responsibility for their teenage daughter Tick (a nickname for Christina), who is having a hard time with Janine's new relationship. Miles' elderly father, Max, is a ne'er-do-well who rarely has two pennies to rub together and is always looking to Miles for a handout.
The Empire Grill is actually owned by Francine Whiting, wealthy widow of textile magnate C.B. Whiting. Francine holds a strange power of Miles, having made vague promises that the grill would become his upon her death. And it turns out Mrs. Whiting has exerted power of Miles most of his life. Why would Mrs. Whiting care about Miles? How did their lives become intertwined? As Miles goes about his daily routine, the answers to these questions gradually become clear.
The novel unfolds at a slow pace, with Russo first painting detailed portraits of all the major characters. Then there are occasional chapters in which Miles remembers events from his past. These episodes are retold from Miles' point of view at the time. Memories of a childhood vacation, or of learning to drive, are described with the perspective of a child, who may not always understand the intricacies of adult relationships or of "real life." Yet it's through these episodes that the reader begins to see how and why the Roby and Whiting families have become intertwined.
While Miles' relationship with Mrs. Whiting provides the central tension in the novel, there are several equally rich sub-plots that are explored in similar depth. The residents of Empire Falls have grown up there together; high school friendships and rivalries play out in adulthood. And for Tick, that cycle is only just beginning, as she learns to navigate the sometimes painful paths of adolescent relationships.
Reading Empire Falls, I began to feel as if I knew these people. I found myself thinking about them when I wasn't reading; they were very real to me and will likely linger in my memory for some time. ( )