Sunday, July 27, 2014


A Boston author, a New Hampshire setting, a crime in progress (serial arson), and potential insight into how communities react to multiple fires -- how could I not read THE ARSONIST by Sue Miller? Plus, I've had the pleasure of listening to Miller in person (her earlier novel The Good Mother may be the most well known of her work). And summer reading should expand to more than one genre, right?

Best to say it right away: THE ARSONIST is not, in spite of its name, crime fiction. Nor does it provide insight into the criminal mind, or even the crime. The title is a masterpiece of misdirection. Still, the novel is vivid and intriguing, and I enjoyed all of it except the ending (if you find you like the ending, please DO place a comment here and explain your reaction, would you?).

Frankie Rowley is home from her aid work in East Africa, for what her family expects is her usual short breathing-space visit -- in this case, to the family summer home in a small New Hampshire village, where her aging parents have just settled to become year-round residents. But Frankie already knows she may never return to Africa. In the midst of an early midlife crisis, questioning her easy-loving lifestyle, her relationship with the ex-pat community abroad, and even the value of her humanitarian efforts, Frankie is more than jet-lagged. She's life-lagged.

On her first, mostly sleepless, night "home," Frankie's out walking when a whiff of smoke hints at the first of the summer housefires. She tunes in gradually to what's going on, as she simultaneously (and with many levels of doubt) begins an affair with the editor of the local paper. And the final strand of tension comes from what's happening to her parents, as her father's "forgetfulness" races toward an inability to recognize his family and himself. Is Frankie supposed to walk away from her own complicated life to become the family caregiver?

I loved the questions raised in THE ARSONIST, about self, about our parents and our communities, about the symbiosis and sometimes the painful clash of "summer people" and year-rounders. (It's not really an issue where I live in Vermont, but there are similar frictions that root in social status and education and power and other life choices.) And the writing kept me enraptured until, as I mentioned, the final few pages, when I felt that Miller tossed out the "show don't tell" rule and hurried to complete the book in a "glimpse of the future" that felt awkward as well as sad.

I'm really interested in other opinions on this one. Yes, get the book -- but don't expect a mystery, right? I can't say much more than that without throwing spoilers into this write-up. Let me know what you think, and whether you've enjoyed this. I certainly did.

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