Click here to read reviewer Luan Gaines' take on The Arsonist.
We often move through our days animated or decimated by trust in human relationships. This volatile human quality is important in a wide range of interactions, from friendships to love affairs to chance encounters with someone who, at first glance, seems to be our soul mate. Frankie experiences this when she returns to her hometown of Pomeroy in northern New Hampshire after a stint as an aid worker in South Sudan. She’s spent the last few months training and supervising staff at the health centers established by NGO, a global international aid organization.
Here, back “where she belongs,” Frankie is faced with a number of quick assumptions and stark choices. Her life is constantly awash in memories and images of the life she has only just left behind, most notably her affair with Philip, a married British doctor, that ended badly. Flooded by sense of weary nostalgia—for something in her past and for something that is perhaps lost to her—Frankie sees herself marking the end of her time in Africa, a place that she had particularly loved.
Angry at herself for her romantic views and her sexual vulnerability, for the lies she tells herself “and the lie that turned her on,” Frankie attempts to reconnect with Sylvia, her difficult, sometimes narrowly frustrating mother. Against the background noise of Pomeroy’s summer life and her father, Alfie, who is gradually deteriorating from Alzheimer’s disease, Frankie witnesses the shifting, fleeting enthusiasms to which her father once brought so much energy. There’s a sense that Frankie has finally laid claim to Alfie, a claim that Sylvia seems to resent at every possible turn.
Sue Miller offers us a perilous premise in The Arsonist. From the outset, we understand the reasons why Sylvia and Alfie have hidden away from the world while dealing with Alfie’s failing, which began tentatively. From the first signs of bemusement (“a little forgetful, a little scattered”), Sylvia is blindsided. Once less critical, Sylvia’s awareness of her husband’s forgetfulness has suddenly become a sharp note of perplexity. Ravaged in her repose, Sylvia’s consuming bitterness as well as Frankie’s constant irritation characterizes much of life for this family. Silvia can’t cope with the part of Frankie that wants to be taken care of and mothered.
The emotional web Miller weaves around her family’s insular academic existence is framed by the arsonist who suddenly thrusts this small community into peril. The fires start in the middle of the night, at first occurring in the unoccupied summer residences of the families who haven’t yet arrived for the season. The first fire at Ludlow House sets the tone for the disasters to come, sending panic throughout the town. Only handsome Bud (the newly arrived local newspaper reporter) is somewhat thrilled at the prospect of a fire waiting: “we are all boys playing with matches.”
Spinning her tale with the concentrated passion of a poem, Miller balances Bud and Frankie’s bourgeoning attraction with Sylvia’s emotional fragility and Alfie’s slow descent into forgetfulness, which deepens Frankie’s insight into a world far outside her realm of experience. Feeling aimless and oppressed at her parents’ house and her indecisiveness about life (and saddened by the situation between her parents and her father’s strange failing), Frankie plunges into an affair with Bud while acknowledging that, yes, it’s a real possibility that on the night she arrived she might have seen the arsonist driving off in his car.
Setting her tale in the waning years of the Clinton presidency, Miller’s prose style is gorgeous, her languid, unhurried tone perfectly suited to the private and intimate dramas of small-town domestic life and to these people wedded to the farm and the land. While the the arsonist’s identity comes as no surprise, the generational complications, disappointments and bonds of love tying parent to child make this story such a compelling read. There’s also the love affair between Frankie and Bud. Theirs is an intimate, private passion shaped by the fires, by Bud gradually learning to fly on his own terms, and Frankie’s recognition of the things she has to let go of and the losses and mysteries she has yet to learn to live with.
Improbability may conjure, but irony plays in these people like a fine violin. Building her low-key tale in the voices of Frankie, Bud and Sylvia, Miller shows us how we are often imprisoned by our circumstances, our losses, tragedies and heartbreaks. She really makes us believe in this nascent, damaged but well-meaning family who are trying desperately to grasp at a little bit of happiness.