It’s hard to believe that this month is over and we’re halfway through winter, and yet It’s so mild and rainy outside today that it feels more like spring… I hate when the seasons get all mixed up like this! Good thing I have a hot cup of chai tea and a yummy Cranberry Scone from Future Bakery to cheer me up!
I took advantage of the opportunity to read whatever I wanted to get to a book I’ve been meaning to read for quite some time. Empire Falls by Richard Russo has been sitting on my shelf for years, I’ve really wanted to read more of this Pulitzer Prize-winning author’s work. It ended up taking me two weeks to read, since I had many other things that I had to do in the evenings over the past couple of weeks, significantly cutting into my reading time. I finally finished last night, just in time to tell you about it this morning. This novel tells the story of a small American town not far from Boston and the people who live there. Much of the town is owned by the wealthy Whiting family who live on the other side of the river, now headed by Francine Whiting, an elderly but intimidating woman whose motto is “Power and control”. She not only owns the properties and businesses in the town, she feels that she owns the citizens of Empire Falls and has the right to orchestrate what goes on there and how the town is run. Miles Roby is one such individual, someone for whom she has a certain fondness, but who may also turn out to be her greatest challenge. Miles manages the Empire Grill, a diner that has been serving the townspeople of Empire Falls for decades. Miles' mother, Grace, had worked for the Whiting family her whole life, first in the shirt factory, then as a personal aide to Mrs. Whiting. When Grace became ill while Miles was away at college, he returned home to care for her and began working at the Grill. Twenty years later, he’s still in the same place, just barely getting by, in the midst of a divorce he never wanted. What holds him together and keeps him going is his awkward, intelligent, talented teenaged daughter Christine, nicknamed “Tick”, who prefers being with her father rather than her mother, Janine, and Janine’s fiance, Walt Comeau. He also still holds out hope that he may finally have a relationship with Charlene, a waitress at the Empire Grill with whom he’s been in love since high school but who has always been just out of reach. Miles, too, has been the reluctant recipient of adoration from Cindy Whiting, Francine’s daughter, who was crippled in an automobile accident when she was very young, leaving her dependent on the kindness of others. Grace encouraged Miles to befriend Cindy, a request he undertook grudgingly. Now Cindy is back, and, being the sole heir to the Whiting fortune, the time is right for Miles to make his move on her and secure his and Tick's financial future. But Miles is haunted by memories of his past, particularly of a vacation he took with his mother when he was nine, when they spent a week at Martha’s Vineyard and spent time in the company of a mysterious stranger named Charlie Mayne. And the pressures from the people around him to make a change, to take advantage of opportunities rather than just let life happen to him, are making life harder and harder for him to manage. His brother David, a reformed alcoholic and excellent chef, wants to expand the restaurant’s menu, extend the hours, and even get a liquor license, to finally make the Grill profitable. His soon-to-be ex-mother-in-law wants him to move on and leave her daughter to her fate as the new Mrs Comeau. Cindy, of course, wants to finally have her love realized and returned. But will mild-mannered Miles be able to get out from under Mrs Whiting’s thumb and make the right decisions for himself and his family while still maintaining his personal integrity? That is the question that drives this slow-moving, detailed narrative. It resembles a soap opera in style, but it contains many insights into the human condition, the way people live their lives, and the things some people choose to do to keep their lives going. I didn’t love this book, but I’m so glad I finally got a chance to read it. It was very well-written, with skilled use of language, fully-developed characters, and complex relationships between townspeople, friends and family. I think I may have enjoyed it more if I had never read John Steinbeck’s The Winter of Our Discontent, because it reminded me so much of that wonderful novel. There were so many parallels, from the mild-mannered protagonist who could have achieved so much more in life but who suffers from thwarted ambitions, the daughter who is instrumental in directing his actions, and the small-town setting, mostly owned and controlled by a single wealthy individual, and filled with quirky characters whose stories intersect with the protagonist and influence how he perceives himself, his fate and his destiny. It also reminded me of John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany, in that religion and the church play a significant role in shaping Miles’ experiences. It was definitely a good reading experience, and I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys domestic fiction set in a small town. This book was also adapted for television and made into a mini-series starring Ed Harris, Helen Hunt, and many other well-known actors. I haven’t seen it, but I’m interested in checking it out if I can get my hands on it somehow.
And I just finished listening to an audiobook, The Most Dangerous Thing, by Laura Lippman, read by Linda Emond, who did an awesome job of capturing the many different characters’ voices and points of view. This novel begins with Gordon “Go Go” Halloran spiralling out of control as he falls off the wagon and drives into the wall at the end of a street near his childhood home. His death (accident or suicide?) brings together the remaining four in the circle of childhood friends whose experiences one summer may have changed their lives. Gwen, Mickey, Tim, Sean and Go Go were inseparable at the end of the ‘70s, but after a particularly devastating experience during a hurricane, they drifted apart. Now, decades later, the truth about the incident threatens to surface and these four individuals, now adults who should be ready to take responsibility, must decide not only how to handle the truth, but what the truth actually is. Can adults be held responsible for acts they committed as children, when they believed they were choosing the best course in a situation where there is no clear right or wrong? Lippman is most well-known for her “Tess Monaghan” series, but I prefer her standalone books, and this one did not disappoint. It had a complex plot, well-developed characters, and addressed issues of childhood actions and truth in retrospect. There were so many characters and time periods that it was often somewhat confusing, and I felt that the appearance of Tess Monaghan near the end felt totally out of place, but everything came together in a satisfying conclusion. All in all, it was the type of story I enjoy, dealing with shared experiences and family secrets, so it was a positive listening experience. If you also like these complex domestic dramas with a mysterious twist, you may enjoy this one, too!
That’s all for today. I want to try to get outside before it starts to rain… ugh!
Bye for now…