Richard Russo lives in coastal Maine with his wife and their two
daughters. His novels Mohawk
, The Risk Pool
and Straight Man
are available in
1. Richard Russo''s description of town of Empire Falls is as
memorable and vivid as his portraits of the people who live there.
How do the details he provides about the town''s setting and its
streets, buildings and neighborhoods create more than a physical
backdrop against which the story is played out? How does the use of
flashbacks strengthen the sense of the town as a "living"
2. "One of the good things about small towns, Miles''s mother
had always maintained, was that they accommodated just about
everyone" [p. 21]. Is this an accurate description of Empire Falls?
Which characters in particular benefit from this attitude? What
influences the level of tolerance Miles is willing to extend to Max
Roby, Walt Comeau and Jimmy Minty, all of whom are constant
irritants to him? What does he see as the redeeming characteristics
of each of them?
3. Why is his relationship with Tick so important to Miles? In
what ways is it reminiscent of his mother''s attachment to him? How
do Grace''s expectations for Miles, as well as her ultimate
disappointment in him, shape the way he is raising Tick?
4. Even before the full story of Grace and Max''s marriage is
revealed, what hints are there that Grace was less than the ideal
wife and mother Miles remembers and reveres? Why does Miles choose
to accept his mother''s version of events of their trip to
Martha''s Vineyard, even though it entails a betrayal of his father
[pp. 136-47]? When Miles finally realizes who Charlie Mayne really
is, does it change his feelings about Grace in a significant way?
Would he have felt differently if Grace were still alive and able
to answer his questions [pp.338-9]? How does Miles''s own
situation-particularly his separation from Janine and his discovery
of the relationship between Charlene and David-color his reaction
to his mother''s affair? How does his brief conversation with Max
about Grace and Charlie [p. 373] shed light on the relationship
between father and son?
5. Janine calls Miles "The World''s Most Transparent Man" [p.
42] and Tick says, "It''s not like you don''t have any [secrets] .
. . It''s just that everybody figures them out" [p. 107]. Does Mrs.
Whiting share this image of Miles? What evidence is there that she
sees and understands more about the "real" Miles than the people
closest to him do?
6. How does Russo use minor characters to fill out his portraits
of the main figures? What roles do Horace Weymouth, Bea Majeski,
Charlene and Otto Meyer play in shaping your impressions of and
opinions about Miles, Janine and Tick?
7. How do David''s feelings about Mrs. Whiting and the Empire
Grill differ from Miles''s? Whose attitude is more realistic? Is
David''s harsh criticism of Miles''s passivity [pp. 224-5]
justified? What insights does it give you into David''s character?
Is David more content with his life than Miles is with his own, and
if so, why?
8. Charlene tells Miles: "David has this theory that between
your mom and dad and him and you there''s, like, one complete
person" [p. 226]. Has each member of the family selected a
particular role, or has it been thrust upon him or her? Is the
division of roles a natural part of family life? Which member of
the Roby family is the "most complete," and what sacrifices did he
or she make to establish a strong individual identity?
9. What does Father Mark offer Miles that he cannot get from his
other relationships? Is Miles drawn to him only because he is a
priest? Why does Russo depict both priests as flawed men-Father
Mark by his sexual longings and Father Tom by his dementia? How
would you characterize the impact of Catholicism on Miles and
Grace? Does attending church genuinely comfort them, or is it a
convenient way of hiding from the problems in their lives and the
decisions they have made? In what ways do Grace''s confession to
Father Tom and the penance he demands affect her character and her
outlook on life?
10. Why does Tick befriend John Voss? How does her sense of
responsibility for him compare to Miles''s feelings-both when he''s
a child and a grown man-about Cindy Whiting? Are the differences
attributable to the circumstances that bring each pair together, or
do they reflect something deeper about Tick''s and Miles''s
morality and their ability to empathize with other people? What
other incidents demonstrate Tick''s understanding of what other
people need? Why is she unable to treat Janine in the same
comfortable, nonjudgmental way she treats Miles and Max Roby?
11. Would you define Mrs. Whiting as a mother figure for Miles?
Does she perceive herself in this way? Does Miles? Beneath their
very different personas, what traits do Mrs. Whiting and Grace
share? Do they represent strengths and weaknesses usually
associated with women? In what ways does Mrs. Whiting''s
description of her relationship with Grace [p. 435] reaffirm their
similarities? Which woman is more honest with herself about her
motivations and feelings?
12. All of the marriages in Empire Falls fail in one way or
another. Does your sense of who is responsible for each marital
breakdown change as the events of the past and present unfold?
Discuss the contrast between the way each of these marriages is
initially described and the "real" stories: Grace and Max; Mr. and
Mrs. Whiting; Miles and Janine. Mrs. Whiting says "Most people . .
. marry the wrong people for all the wrong reasons. For reasons so
absurd they can''t even remember what they were a few short months
after they''ve pledged themselves forever" [p. 169]. How does this
assessment apply to the marriages mentioned above?
13. From the almost unimaginable cruelty of John Voss''s parents
to Mrs. Whiting''s coldness toward Cindy, to Grace''s emotional
withdrawal from David (and to some extent Miles) when she joins the
Whiting household, the novel contains several examples of the
emotional and physical harm parents inflict on their children. Why
do you think Russo made this a central theme of the book? Does it
adequately explain, or even justify, behavior you would otherwise
find completely unacceptable?
14. Empire Falls traces three very different families-the
Whitings, the Robys, and the Mintys-through several generations.
What do each of these families represent in terms of American
society in general? How do their fates embody the economic and
social changes that have occurred over the last century? To what
extent are the members of the current generation trapped by the
15. What does Empire Falls provide that its residents might not
be able to find in another town or city? Does living in a small
town necessarily limit the satisfactions people get out of life?
Miles says, "After all, what was the whole wide world but a place
for people to yearn for their hearts'' impossible desires, for
those desires to become entrenched in defiance of logic,
plausibility, and even the passage of time?" [p. 295]. Is he right?
Which characters might have had better, more fulfilling lives if
they had moved away from?
16. In contemplating the past year, Tick says, "Just because
things happen slow doesn''t mean you''ll be ready for them. If they
happened fast, you''d be alert for all kinds of suddenness. . .
"Slow" works on an altogether different principle, on the deceptive
impression that there''s plenty of time to prepare" [p. 441]. How
does this relate to the novel as a whole and the way it is
structured? Why has Russo chosen Tick to express this insight?
17. What adjectives would you use to describe Empire
Falls? How does Russo make the story of a dying town (with
more than its share of losers) entertaining and engaging? Did you
find most, if not all, of the characters sympathetic in some