Originally published July 2014
Do you know where you fit in?
42-year-old Frankie is still trying to figure it all out in Sue Miller’s “The Arsonist,” her latest on the heels of bestsellers including “The Senator’s Wife” and The Lake Shore Limited.”
Miller’s primary character, Frankie Rowley, is in a bit of a freefall—unsure of her present, she heads back to her past—the summer home in New Hampshire that’s now her parents’ year-round stead. Having spent 15 years in Africa as a relief worker, she finds herself unexpectedly offering relief to her mother, Sylvia, whose facing a personal crisis of her own—caring for her husband, Alfie, as he sinks further into the abyss of Alzheimers.
Much of the book is a study in compare and contrast—the African lifestyle and pace of work in comparison to the sleepy summers of Pomeroy, New Hampshire. The summer folk vs. the year-rounders. The intricate makeup of a decades-old marriage to the careful dance between new lovers. The breakneck pace of Washington journalism compared to the Ma and Pa-styled amblings of a small town paper.
Several themes criss-cross throughout, but perhaps the most thought-provoking throughout it this—how much do you give of yourself to make another person happy? Frankie finds herself attracted to and eventually pulled into a relationship with the town paper’s owner and editor, Bud, but she struggles with the concept of setting roots down in Pomeroy. Sylvia is distraught over her husband’s failing health, but even more so over the fact she doesn’t love him and hasn’t for a long time. And Alfie grows angrier with himself every day, as he slips further from reality and does not wish to be a burden.
The backdrop—a summertime arsonist—only serves to heighten the anxiety between Frankie and Bud, Frankie and Sylvia, and Sylvia and Alfie. The town is on notice, relationships are strained and at the end, people just want the whole mess over with—not unlike those seeking resolution in their own relationships.
If you are looking for a quiet but thoughtful read, “The Arsonist” is right up your alley. Anyone who has ever contemplated the meaning of their life and the possibility they may have squandered some of it will connect with the characters. The ending left me a little sad, because I think I hoped for something different for Frankie. But hers is not my life to choose. Miller’s prose is poetic and graceful, even if a little frustrating (there are several plot threads I felt were either left unexplored or unresolved – if you are going to have a summer residents vs. the townies plot line, I need it wrapped up with either a knife fight or a subdivision explosion). Much like life.