Friday, December 19, 2014

The Arsonist by Sue Miller

The Arsonist, by Sue Miller, is an engaging novel that explores human relationships in their many dimensions.

Frankie Rowley has just returned to her parents' summer home in Pomeroy, New Hampshire. She has been employed as a relief worker in Africa for many years. Now in her early 40s, Frankie is disillusioned with her life's work; she questions the impact she has had on regions plagued by famine and war. We, the readers, are given a picture of her life abroad - the constant tension, the hordes of sick and starving people, the threat of violence by warring factions.

Now, having the benefit of distance, Frankie realizes she was never a part of the fabric of this society. She and other aid workers lived in gated communities with a variety of servants. Unlike the people she helped by day, Frankie and others could retreat to safe quarters in the evening. She accepted the class division as natural, even though she felt alienated from genuine relationships. Likewise, her romantic encounters were highly charged but emotionally empty. There was no sense of permanency in any part of her life.

Seeking resolution, Frankie returns home to think about her next career move. Unintentionally, she walks into the very situation she has spent her life avoiding - personal entanglements. First, her parents are facing the health issues confronting many in later years. Her mother, Silvia, has become a caretaker for her father, now afflicted with dementia. And for the first time, Silvia makes Frankie her unwilling confidant, confessing to marital issues that Frankie did not know existed.

The second entanglement is with Bud Jacobs, the owner of the town newspaper. He, too, has sought an escape from a former life -that of a Washington journalist and unhappily married man. He meets Frankie while covering the rash of fires, labelled arson, that have plagued the summer homes of residents. Like Frankie, he feels a sense of dislocation and is at loose ends.

Miller is empathetic toward her characters and we sympathize even with the suspected arsonist. She also accurately depicts the class divisions inherent in any tourist town - the wealthy summer residents vs. those who live and work in the town year-round. The reader is given to wonder if arson is the result of this tension.

As Ron Charles of the Washington Post concludes:

Set against the acts of a serial arsonist, which in turn, are set against the attacks of African terrorists, these ordinary folks' hopes and fears could seem small and petty, the kindling for some bitter satire about American self-absorption. But that's the continuing miracle of Miller's compelling storytelling: She knows these people matter, and as she moves gently from one character's perspective to another, her sensitive delineation of their lives convinces us of that, too.

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