The Arsonist, by Sue Miller

by Robert A. Parker

I love Sue Miller because she writes about real people in real situations. She writes about family and interlocking human relationships. And she writes, in this 2014 novel, about how even in small towns the big world out there becomes part of everyone’s life.

In this case, the big world begins with Africa, and the good that NGOs bring to its people, in the face of poverty and poor public health. This is the world that Frankie (Francesca) Rowley has served for fifteen years. But now she has come home on leave, and is undecided whether or not to go back—back to this world she has dedicated herself to and found a deep satisfaction in. Because she also feels frustrated, at not having been able to make a permanent difference. And doubts she ever will. And so wonders what her true calling in life is.

She returns to a family she left in order to find out who she truly is. To a father, Alfie, an academic the family sacrificed itself for, but who never fulfilled his own intellectual promise. To a mother, Sylvia, who not only led that sacrifice but who also paid much less attention to the well-grounded and intelligent Frankie. Instead, paid more attention to her flighty younger daughter Liz, who is now, ironically, settled, happily married, and a mother.

The Rowleys have moved to their summer home in Pomeroy in northern New Hampshire. The bulk of this story takes place there, where the father has just retired to in order to write a long-planned book. Frankie is not sure how long she will stay, but as she meets the town’s residents, both summer and year-round, she and gets to know this town.

Two events dominate this work. They are unconnected, but they bring her, and us, closer to the town’s quiet environment. First, on the night Frankie arrives, a neighbor’s summer house, vacant, is burned down. It is the first in a series of fires set by an unknown arsonist who gives the book its title. It also lends moderate suspense to this novel that is otherwise laid back, like its heroine, like the town residents themselves.

But its main purpose seems to be to bring more of the big world out there into this small town. It is a variation on the world of terrorism which Frankie first encountered in Africa. That is, the world’s social tensions have entered even into “this little, closed-in world” of Pomeroy. And are fostered by the burgeoning differences between the townies who live there year long and the summer residents who come and go. For it is the latter’s homes being torched. Is a message being sent to them? And by whom? Perhaps by a person who may be encountered on the street at any time?

As Ron Charles writes in the Washington Post, Miller is “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. The fires force everyone to consider ‘who owned the town and who merely used it.’”  Which expands the context of this novel, even as it focuses on the individual participants.

In the second event, Frankie meets Bud Jacobs, a newspaperman who has just bought this small-town weekly as an entrée into a kind of life he always yearned for. Sparks slowly ignite between them, and their relationship becomes the heart of the novel. It is a passionate affair, but the author makes it clear merely through suggestion, leaving the reader’s imagination to fill in the prurient details. But the main question does become clear: will Frankie sacrifice her ambition in the big world out there for the love, the deep connection, that she has found here after yearning for it for years?

It is the pursuit to find the answer to these questions that pulls the reader through these pages. Who is the arsonist? And will love prevail? And in the first pursuit, we follow the conflict between the summer folk and the full-time residents, whether they are worshipping together or mixing at the town dances. And we probe deeper into life of the town, such as the emergency procedures of the volunteer fire department in responding to the fires, and, with Bud, the normal procedures of his weekly newspaper.

There is also a secondary story that lends substance to Frankie’s family life. Her father, Alfie, begins to have spells, and then memory lapses, finally wondering off into the woods alone, drawing a search party from the entire town. As a result of Alfie’s condition, Sylvia reveals to Frankie her true feelings about her husband, which surprises both Frankie and the reader. But it also prompts Frankie to consider her responsibility to her mother. As well as reflect Miller’s own interest in family responsibility among the generations. And, finally, Alfie’s status also brings to a head Frankie’s own relationship with Bud.

And from here, the novel’s two primary issues work themselves out. Not really in a dramatic way, but in a way that is truer to life than it is in most fiction. As a result, the two outcomes leave the reader with no major impact at the end, no rush of emotion that so often makes the reading of a novel so fulfilling. As Jean Haney Korelitz notes in The New York Times, “This may be intentional, but it might also irritate readers hoping for a more concrete resolution of Frankie’s conundrum, and of the arsonist’s identity.”

But if I myself was not moved, I was content with the novel’s resolution. For it works in the context of the quiet, daily lives of these characters, both the Rowley family and the many townspeople. And it is complementary to the quiet drama of this novel, the drama of arson in which no one is ever hurt, and the drama of a love affair that belongs to its own world, the world of two disparate people who find love where and when they least expect.

I look forward to more novels from Sue Miller. Family is her subject, and family has long been a major literary subject by the great novelists. How they begin, how they endure, and how they end.

(December, 2016)

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