‘The Arsonist’: the passage of homecoming in a small town
Sue Miller’s novel “The Arsonist” chronicles the return of an aid worker to her small New England hometown as she struggles with both finding her place and helping her elderly parents.
Special to The Seattle Times
by Sue Miller
Knopf, 307 pp., $25.95
Set in a small New England town, Sue Miller’s latest novel thoughtfully explores the idea of home. “The Arsonist” begins with the return home of Frankie Rowley, a woman in her 30s who’s spent 15 years as an aid worker in East Africa. Now she’s back at her family home (the summer place of her childhood, where her parents, Sylvia and Alfie, have now retired); an expatriate, puzzled by that curiously American “happiness of no rules.”
In the town, she meets Bud, publisher of the local newspaper and himself a transplant from a busy life in Washington, D.C. — he, too, is looking for home, and soon thinks he may have found it in Frankie’s eyes. Meanwhile, homes around them are quite literally disappearing, as a serial arsonist strikes repeatedly by night, throughout the town.
Miller, the author of many best-selling novels (among them “The Good Mother,” “The Senator’s Wife,” and most recently “The Lake Shore Limited”), has an elegant way with prose. Her descriptions never feel writerly, but intricate and real, and her sentences flow like a summer river. You feel as if you know Frankie or Bud or Sylvia, or someone quite like them, and you happily spend time in their company. There’s a kindness to her writing, a sort of authorial gentleness; though never saccharine or sentimental, we see the goodness in the people she creates.
Told in third person, mostly through Frankie’s perspective but sometimes from Bud or Sylvia’s, “The Arsonist” immerses us in Pomeroy, New Hampshire, the kind of place where the Greyhound bus drops passengers off at a gas station and where everyone knows everyone else’s business. The summer, with its fires and whispers, brings tension between the longtime residents and the “summer people.” Frankie’s family occupies an awkward space in between. Pomeroy’s been a town since the late 1700s, and yet remains a quiet picture of startling beauty; the sort of place where people like Bud dream of beginning again. The Rowleys own many acres; an acquaintance in Africa, seeing photos of Frankie’s family home, asks what crops they raise. (Only in America, notes Frankie: “the prodigal Western world of no farming.”)
Life in that house, though, isn’t serene. As Frankie wonders what her next step will be, it becomes clear that all is not well with her parents: Alfie, a former academic, is showing signs of Alzheimer’s disease. Wandering in his dementia, he says “home.” Frankie wonders whether he means “the time when he felt whole, when he felt like himself. The time — and perhaps one of the places — where the world seemed to recognize him in some deep way, seemed to say, Come in, we’ve been expecting you. Exactly you.”
As we watch Frankie struggle with “the increasing sense of absence” in her father, “The Arsonist” becomes a tale of a daughter finding her place, of what happens when we return home only to find that things have shifted in our absence, like driftwood on a shore. A likable, complex heroine, Frankie needs to find home in her own way; and she does so, in a satisfying ending that leaves you wanting more of Miller’s soothing voice. She’s the kind of author who creates, for us, a home on the page.
Moira Macdonald is the movie critic for The Seattle Times.