Set in the small, decaying, nearly bankrupt town of Empire Falls, Maine, this is the story of the unassuming manager of the Empire Grill, Miles Roby, who has spent his life in the town. The town, and Miles' life to a large degree, are controlled by the Whitings, a rich family that owns the local factories and much property.
Miles is separated and later divorced from Janine, who has become a cocky, selfish person after losing weight and exercising rigorously. This is partly due to encouragement from Walt Comeau, the antagonistic owner of a local fitness center who visits the Empire Grill daily and has moved into Roby's old house.
Roby is protective of his loving teenage daughter, nicknamed "Tick", who loves art. Tick is dealing with Zack Minty, her ex-boyfriend who continues to pursue her, and struggles with her mother's relationship with Walt whom Tick cannot stand. In addition, Tick has a complicated friendship with John Voss, an emotionally disturbed boy at school. The obnoxious jock Zack and his friends constantly bully John.
Other important people in Miles' life include his grubby, ne'er-do-well father, a rascal who can't resist a handout when it comes his way; Miles' reformed, marijuana smoking brother, who is a talented Empire Grill cook; Miles' good-hearted ex-mother-in-law, who owns a bar; the town's wealthiest woman, Francine Whiting, a condescending matron who owns the Empire Grill; Whiting's daughter, who has loved Miles for many years; an attractive waitress; a retiring police chief; and a dimwitted police officer, who is Zack's father and has known Miles since childhood.
Miles is plagued by flashbacks of his family when he was a child; these include memories of a mysterious affair between his mother and a suitor, the details of which might answer some questions Miles has had his entire life.