Book Review: “The Arsonist,” by Sue Miller

Sue Miller has a special ability to portray the psychological dimensions of domestic relationships, while maintaining an acute sensitivity to her characters’ inner cores. These qualities are on display in her latest novel, The Arsonist.

The Arsonist explores issues of class divide and resentment, personal identity, and the quest for fulfillment. Set in the late 1990s, the story centers on three point-of-view characters: Francesca “Frankie” Rowley, her mother, Sylvia, and Bud Jacobs, a former Wasington bureau reporter who leaves the big time to run a small community newspaper.

Burned out after 15 years of relief work in Africa, Frankie has returned to her parents’ summer home in Pomeroy, New Hampshire, to relax and sort out her future. Fighting jet lag she takes a walk in the middle of the night and witnesses a car driving at a fast rate of speed and she smells smoke. An arsonist has burned down the home of one of the summer residents, the first of a dozen such fires that rip the small town apart.

All of the homes destroyed by the fires are owned by summer residents, fueling speculation the arsonist is a year-round resident. Miller effectively shows the deep divide between the working class residents, who are fully invested in the town, and the tony summer people who invade the community three months a year.

The fires are not the only problem on Sylvia’s mind. She and her husband, Alfie, have retired and moved from the Connecticut suburbs to her family summer home in Pomeroy, but she is far from content. Alfie, a retired college professor, has always been the apple of the children’s eyes, while Sylvia has done all the work of raising the family. Her resentment of him has simmered for years. Now, Alfie suffers from dementia and, as Sylvia struggles to help him, she faces the realization that she does not love him.

Frankie faces a different dilemma. She questions if the work she did in Africa has really made a difference. She also comes to grips with the realization that a series of affairs with aid workers (the most recent a married man) have left her feeling empty. Into her life comes Bud, the local newspaper publisher who yearns desperately for acceptance in this small town community. They meet at a Fourth of July tea and an affair slowly develops. Miller resists the trope of a quick, torrid affair and instead lets this relationship develop with the awkwardness and uncertainty that two middle-aged people would feel in such a situation.

The story threads come to a head as Sylvia is forced to deal with finding long-term care for Alfie, Frankie must make a decision about her future–and whether it will include Bud–and law enforcement has pinned the arson fires on a barely employed and uneducated handyman. Bud has serious doubts as to whether they have arrested the right man. Sylvia springs into action to help Alfie, with Frankie’s help, and Frankie must decide whether to pursue her career as she weighs what she has sacrificed by not allowing herself to commit to a long term relationship .

As always, Miller delivers the goods with a rich and satisfying story about class, community and identity.

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