The Arsonist

The Arsonist, Sue Miller’s eleventh novel, concerns — in part — the tensions between year-round locals and seasonal residents in a small New England town. Reading it, I was reminded of a letter that appeared a few years ago in The Cape Cod Chronicle, my local summer weekly newspaper. The writer, a native Cape Codder who was fed up with his hometown being overrun by summer crowds, proposed that a special viewing section for the Fourth of July parade be reserved for year-rounders only. I was taken aback to see that it was signed by the handyman who had recently constructed an outdoor shower for us. His suggestion unleashed a spate of outraged responses from readers, particularly longtime summer residents.

In Miller’s novel, someone is deliberately setting fire to a series of mostly antique summer residences in cozy Winslow, New Hampshire, while their owners are away. The nighttime torchings put everyone on edge but also raise thorny issues about class and “about who owned the town and who merely used it” — a subject that could provide plenty of kindling to ignite book group discussions.  

Set in 1998, the summer when President Clinton was facing impeachment charges after the investigation into his affair with Monica Lewinsky, The Arsonist‘s subtext is about how little things can be blown up to major proportions — while big things are sometimes pushed under the rug. But mainly it’s a book about defining and finding home, about being both literally and figuratively burned out, and about divides — between social classes, phases of a life, families, and couples.

Miller tells her engaging story via the tight third-person point of view of forty-three-year-old Frankie Rowley, a tall, slim redhead with “pre-Raphaelite” looks. After fifteen years as an aid worker in Kenya, Frankie, disheartened by the latest in a string of failed love affairs, has returned to the U.S. on an open-ended and perhaps permanent leave. She visits her parents in Winslow, where they have recently retired full-time into the family’s summer home, a farmhouse that dates back to her mother’s grandparents.  

Expecting to find peace and serenity in the fresh air and rolling acres of unplanted, lush green land — such a contrast to Africa — Miller’s appealing heroine instead experiences a series of culture shocks, beginning with the movie on her flight to Boston — “astonishing to Frankie in its stupidity and crudeness. Was this all right in the States?” — and extending to her dismay that Monica Lewinsky is what Americans are talking about “when there’s so much…horror in the world.” Frankie realizes that her footloose style — always having an exit strategy, even from romance — has rendered her a permanent outsider. Is she destined to be a perpetual foreigner, not just in Africa but in her own country?

She soon learns that her parents’ relocation was not her mother’s choice: Sylvia Rowley resents having to quit her teaching job and life in Connecticut. But at seventy-four, Frankie’s father, Alfie, now retired from the third-tier college where he finally received tenure as a history professor after a choppy academic career, is rapidly slipping into dementia, and Sylvia hopes old familiar surroundings will anchor him. Miller captures Alfie’s distressing mental hiccups and moments of equally heartbreaking lucidity — and the family’s reactions to them — with sensitivity and nuance. In a surprisingly cogent conversation with his daughter, Alfie quotes an apt line from a Philip Larkin poem — “What do they imagine, the old fools?” — and adds, “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?”

While the Rowley family drama is compelling, some readers may find Miller’s decision to shift focus from her titular story concerning the alarming series of nocturnal conflagrations that begin on Frankie’s first jet-lagged, sleepless night home somewhat baffling. It’s as if she’s laid an initially blazing narrative fire which she decides not to keep stoking. Her fizzling resolution of the arson plotline essentially pours some water over its smoldering ashes and leaves it to die down on its own.  

The Arsonist‘s decidedly more sentimental third narrative strand is meant to tie the book’s various themes together. I’m not giving anything away that an astute reader can’t see coming from the first handshake when I reveal that it involves a relationship with a big-city journalist named Bud Jacobs, who has fled his old life and bought the local weekly paper. Like Frankie, Bud is also grappling with questions of permanence and defining home.

The arson story, of course, is a big scoop for the Pomeroy Union. Reporting about the fires, Bud raises the hot-button issue of class resentment as “a possible motivation for what otherwise seems a series of motiveless crimes.” The former editor advises him to douse the inflammatory class relations angle and instead focus on the arsonist’s cry for attention or the possible pyromania of volunteer firefighters, but we wish Miller hadn’t been so easily deflected.

Although Miller only goes so far with this issue, details like a local kid’s “Flatlanders Go Home” T-shirt ring true. So, too, does a town meeting about the fires in which the summer people quickly take charge organizing neighborhood watches and rentals for the homeless — because, after all, it’s their properties that are threatened.

It’s not hard to understand the popularity of Sue Miller’s novels. Beginning with The Good Mother in 1986, her books are psychologically astute, well-made moral dramas that usually feature a love angle. Sophisticated without being overly challenging, her realist fiction is emotionally engaging and avoids cliché. And because they’re character-driven, even her most topical novels (including her last, The Lake Shore Limited, which touches on terrorism and 9/11) avoid the off-putting sense that she’s weighing in on the hot topic du jour.

While The Arsonist doesn’t burn quite so brightly in its second half, it’s still an enjoyable, often moving read. It also serves up easily digestible life lessons about “the insolubility of human problems” and the danger of “too many choices,” plus a moral of sorts, which readers who question Miller’s realistic but somewhat open-ended climax should keep in mind: “The lesson was there were things you had to let go of, losses and mysteries you had to learn to live with.”

For other books set in summer communities, readers might want to check out Annie Dillard’s beautiful novel The Maytrees and Wallace Stegner’s incomparable Crossing to Safety, both of which concern the evolving dynamics of long-haul marriages. Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections and Lisa Genova’s Still Alice offer very different takes on families coping with Alzheimer’s disease. Finally, Robin Hood ethics are at the fore in Russell Banks’s “wicked” sad and powerful Rule of the Bone, in which his disenfranchised north-country teenage narrator at one point trashes a rich Connecticut couple’s boarded-up summer house. Like The Arsonist, all of these books deal with social, emotional, and temporal divides —  oddly apt for vacationing readers taking a break from their everyday lives.