The Arsonist

By Sue Miller

(Knopf Doubleday, $24.95, 320 pages)

Who is this author?

Sue Miller, who lives in Cambridge, is a best-selling author who has sold more than 4 million copies of her novels, which some relegate to the “domestic fiction” category but others call great reads. Besides The Arsonist, Miller’s novels are The Lake Shore Limited, The Senator’s Wife, Lost in the Forest, The World Below, While I Was Gone, The Distinguished Guest, For Love, Family Pictures, and The Good Mother. She also has published Inventing the Abbotts, a collection of stories; and the memoir The Story of My Father. The Good Mother and Inventing the Abbots became feature films; Oprah Winfrey selected While I Was Gone for her popular Book Club.

What is this book about?

It’s 1998, and someone is burning down the fine old homes of Pomeroy, N.H. And Alzheimer’s disease is burning down the mind of Frankie Rowley’s dad and with it, her parents’ marriage. Frankie has returned to the U.S. after 15 years of work fighting poverty in East Africa, and she’s experiencing culture shock, along with dismay at the arsons destroying the elegant second homes of the summer people who vacation in the New Hampshire town, as well as the sad state of her parents’ lives. She’s also attracted to the editor of the local paper. This is a novel about the difficulties and rewards of maintaining a marriage, a love affair, a community – told with Miller’s customary grace and insights.

Why you’ll like it:

Miller once told the New York Times: “For me everyday life in the hands of a fine writer seems … charged with meaning. When I write, I want to bring a sense of that charge, that meaning, to what may fairly be called the domestic.” In The Arsonist, she does just that, exploring the deep emotional chasms that can open up in what has heretofore seemed to be a placid and ordinary life. Miller knows how to tell a good and many-layered story.

Her desire to probe into the inner lives of her characters may come from her family background. She has said: “I come from a long line of clergy. My father was an ordained minister in the Presbyterian church, though as I grew up, he was primarily an academic at several seminaries — the University of Chicago, and then Princeton. Both my grandfathers were also ministers, and their fathers too. It goes back farther than that in a more sporadic way.” But then, she also reveals: “I spent a year working as a cocktail waitress in a seedy bar just outside New Haven, Connecticut. Think high heels, mesh tights, and the concentrated smell of nicotine. Think of the possible connections of this fact to the first fact, above.”

What others are saying:

Says Booklist: “With her trademark elegant prose and masterful command of subtle psychological nuance, Miller explores the tensions between the summer people and the locals in a small New Hampshire town. Frankie Rowley, after years spent doing relief work abroad, has returned to her parents’ summer home, unsure of whether she will ever go back to East Africa, feeling depleted by that region’s seemingly endless suffering. But the reassuring comfort of the small town she has been coming to since she was a girl is shattered by a series of fires set by an arsonist who has targeted the rambling summer homes of the wealthy. Frankie falls into an unexpected and passionate love affair with the local newspaper editor while also becoming privy to her parents’ difficulties, with her mother seeming to resent her husband’s decline into Alzheimer’s, especially since she no longer loves him. The town, awash in fear of the unknown arsonist, splits into factions aligned along class divisions. In this suspenseful and romantic novel, Miller delicately parses the value of commitment and community, the risky nature of relationships, and the yearning for meaningful work.”

Publishers Weekly says:  “A small New Hampshire town provides the backdrop for Miller’s provocative novel about the boundaries of relationships and the tenuous alliance between locals and summer residents when a crisis is at hand. After years of being an aid worker in Africa, Frankie Rowley returns to the idyllic Pomeroy, N.H., summer home to which her parents have retired. But all is not well in Pomeroy, where a spate of house fires leaves everyone wary and afraid. Frankie, who may have seen the arsonist her first night home, contemplates her ambiguous future and falls for Bud Jacobs, a transplant who has traded the hustle and bustle of covering politics in D.C. for the security of small town life, buying the local newspaper. Meanwhile, Sylvia, Frankie’s mother, becomes concerned about her husband’s increasingly erratic behavior, fearful that it’s a harbinger of Alzheimer’s. Liz, Frankie’s married sister, has her hands full dealing with their parents while Frankie’s been overseas. Miller, a pro at explicating family relationships as well as the fragile underpinnings of mature romance, brilliantly draws parallels between Frankie’s world in Africa and her life in New Hampshire, and explores how her characters define what “home” means to them and the lengths they will go to protect it.”

Says Kirkus Reviews:  “As a series of fires in a small New Hampshire town exposes tensions between summer and year-round residents, the members of one in-between family confront their own desires, limitations and capacities to love in Miller’s latest. Burned out on her transient life working for an NGO in Africa, Frankie takes a possibly permanent leave and comes to stay with her parents, Sylvia and Alfie, in Pomeroy, N.H., where they have recently retired after years of summering there. The night of Frankie’s arrival coincides with the town’s first house fire, which everyone assumes was an accident. Days later, at the annual Fourth of July tea, Frankie begins a flirtation with Bud, who runs Pomeroy’s newspaper, and accompanies him to the site of the fire so he can take pictures. When a second fire occurs, again at a home belonging to summer residents, Bud begins to wonder if arson is involved. Soon there are more fires—at least six—and Bud is actively covering the story. Frankie becomes more involved than she’d like after realizing she may have seen the arsonist’s car the night of the first fire. Her description helps lead to an arrest. As the investigation meanders—one of the least exciting detective stories ever—Frankie and Bud begin falling in love, though both are in their 40s and on different life paths. But the heart of the story really lies in Sylvia and Alfie’s marriage. For years, seemingly super-competent Sylvia has been secretly dissatisfied with her marriage to self-important but only moderately successful college professor Alfie. Now Alfie’s mind is failing and she’s stuck caring for him. Miller’s portrayal of early Alzheimer’s and the toll it takes on a family is disturbingly accurate and avoids the sentimental uplift prevalent in issue-oriented fiction. Any spouse who has been there will recognize Sylvia’s guilt, anger, protectiveness and helplessness as she watches Alfie deteriorate. While the melodrama fails to ignite, Miller captures all the complicated nuances of a family in crisis.

“Miller [eschews] easy cliff-hangers or narrative deceits. The momentum grows instead from her compassionate handling of these characters. . . . Not all questions are answered, nor all mysteries solved, but the end of the book is imbued with the same quiet energy that’s been building throughout; it’s not happy, exactly—that would be too easy—but, in true Sue Miller fashion, it’s triumphant,” says Elle.

When is it available?

You can find The Arsonist at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Mark Twain branch.

Do you have something to say about this book, this author or books in general? Please post your comments here and I will respond. Let’s get a good books conversation going!

Comments are closed.