Empire Falls - Richard Russo
Although Empire Falls is slightly overloaded with plot twists (but not as plot-heavy as Dickens, after all), it's the most enjoyable novel I've read so far this year.

All the characters are distinctly depicted, including the secondary ones. For example, it's clear that all three generations of Mintys (William, Jimmy, and Zack) are bad news, but in somewhat different ways. They're all "sneaky and mean", but this manifests itself differently in each case. There's a lot of discussion of what character traits people inherit from their parents in this book, but the characters are individual enough, and real enough, to make it more than theoretical. I like it when you can actually tell something about a person in a book from the way they're depicted, not just what is explicitly said.

Another ongoing discussion is various people's suspicion that their lot in life is the work of a vindictive God, or them wondering how much of what happens to them is luck, fate, or family inheritance, rather than under their own control. Francine Whiting, as the most powerful person in town, isn't afraid to pronounce on the subject, and yet she contradicts herself -- first saying that you can't change the course of the "river" of your life, and then saying that people like her make their own luck. But maybe that isn't a contradiction -- maybe she thinks she was fated to be a person who could take charge of her own life. Certainly she knew how to use money to make things happen her way, unlike her hapless husband Charlie, who though he could make waiters dance attendance, couldn't control anything that mattered.

One thing that really sets the book apart is the prose; Russo has a real gift for a neatly turned simile. To pick two examples at random: describing Mrs. Whiting as "look[ing] like a woman who'd been enough of a good sport to give old age a try but then decided against it, much preferring youth"; or a clueless man staring at a difficult social problem like "a soldier who's been parachuted into the middle of a battlefield and instructed to make weapons out of whatever materials are at hand".

Best of all, the characters are good people to spend time in the company of. Some of them I'll miss when I shut the book; that's reason to reread it.