Sue Miller is the best-selling author of such novels as The Lake Shore Limited, The Senator’s Wife, Last in the Forest, The World Below, While I Was Gone, and The Good Mother. Her short-story Inventing the Abbotts became a major motion picture starring Jennifer Connelly, Liv Tyler, Joaquin Phoenix, and Michael Keaton. The Arsonist is Sue Miller’s eleventh novel. I was drawn in by the line, “Later, Frankie would remember the car speeding past in the dark as she stood at the edge of the old dirt road. She would remember that she had been aware of the smell of smoke for a while.”
It’s interesting to note that The Senator’s Wife and Lake Shore Limited took place during very complex times, in urban settings, where The Arsonist is set in Rural New Hampshire where everything is supposed to be about neighbors and closeness and safety. Pomeroy is the type of town where they hold an annual gathering called The Fourth of July Tea. Grown-ups dressed in their church clothes. Children made to dress up too. For Pomeroy, the event was the official start of summer. Frankie Rowley has come home from Africa where she was relentlessly involved in relief work. After 15 years, she’s exhausted by the moral implications of how relief work is brokered, and brokenhearted by the end of a relationship with a married man. Craving time to re-calibrate her life, Frankie imagines she’ll enjoy “an easy and very American happiness.” She’ll eat long meals with her retired parents and sleep late in the bedroom “she’d had every summer since she was a child.”
But she has come home to a time of trouble. Someone in the community is setting fire to houses belonging to “summer people.” The arsonist incinerates more than a dozen houses in this small town, burning away a sense of tranquility and trust along with buildings and furniture. Townsfolk soon feel divided. There are the homestead folk who live in Pomeroy year-round, then there are “those others” who come to town once a year and stay for a mere four months, but who want an equal voice in the town’s business. Are the fires being set by someone who despises the seasonal dwellers? Or are the crimes being carried out by a volunteer firefighter who loves the thrill of fire. Miller isn’t dogmatic on the theme of class, and she ultimately leaves it unresolved, but she’s interested in the friction between modest folks who maintain the town and “chatty, self-assured summer people” who expect it to remain an accommodating setting for their leisure.
Miller explores the way illness strains a relationship and exposes cracks that happier times kept hidden. Frankie’s father, Alfie, is a retired college professor and lover of books. As Alfie drifts into dementia, Frankie’s mother realizes that her loveless marriage is becoming a different kind of prison — one constructed of burden and guilt. Frankie must figure out the ways her parents still need her, or, maybe they don’t. Miller excels at portraying the manner in which people connect and fail to connect. By contrast, her resolution of the arson mystery — which is really no resolution at all — is less than satisfying. On a thematic level, though, “The Arsonist” boldfaces its points. Miller captures all the complicated nuances of a family in crisis. The book provides a setting that allows us to watch the internal crumbling of Frankie’s family against the backdrop of a typical, quiet New England town in the grips of terror, realizing that times are changing. Distrust of one’s neighbors has come to small-town America.
The Arsonist tells a compelling and intriguing story that is well worth your time.