Publication date: June 24, 2014
In Sue Miller’s The Arsonist Frankie Rowley has returned to the small town of Pomeroy, New Hampshire- a beach town where she spent summers with her family and where her parents, Alylvia and Alfie, have now retired. She has left behind her life in Africa where she spent years working for an organization that helps feed children. She hopes that a quiet summer at the beach will clear her head and help her decide what to do. When struck with jet lag her first night home she takes a walk in the early morning hours and is surprised when a car drives by on one of the remote lanes near her house. When she learns the next day that an empty house burned down in the night she wonders about what she may have seen.
Within short order, several unoccupied houses in the area have burned down but in The Arsonist this action is only one small part of the story. Miller’s skill and finesse mean that as this story unfolds she has the literary wherewithal to write of much deeper, intimate issues that, while they progress more slowly, are no less damaging and difficult than an out-of-control fire. Sylvia is the first to notice that Alfie who, with his fickle thirst for new knowledge has always been a challenge,
She had come to understand how distractible he was, which she hadn’t noticed at first. How he was always hurrying to the next universe to read about, to master, but never quite deeply enough.
is now forgetting more than he remembers. His moods shift and simple things like directions become complicated. Their retirement is still new and fragile and so she says nothing but later when Frankie has a conversation with her father he admits that he isn’t being honest with Sylvia and wonders
“It raises the question, doesn’t it: when a person is changing, as I am, at what point are they no longer who they were?”
This change, as slow moving as it may be unleashes a slew of emotions in Sylvia. She, too, was looking forward to retirement but with a husband who will require constant care and supervision can she even retire? And how would she work and look after this man’s needs? What would retirement even mean with a man who is becoming a stranger?
Sylvia is not alone in life changes. Frankie finds herself navigating a new relationship with the local paper’s owner and editor. Her plan of simplifying and figuring out her life is disrupted by this man.
It is Miller’s knack for delving into the personal lives of her characters in the face of larger situations that provides an important contrast for the reader. Even as disaster occurs there are small human stories evolving. The Arsonist stays so true to life that it is not always certain where things are going. Well into the novel there is a turn of events that is completely plausible in life and does not feel contrived but for which there is no expected outcome. The reader is simply along for the ride in the lives of these characters. This ambiguity can be disconcerting but the ride is still worth taking.
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