Burned-out is a term frequently applied to the so-called helping professions, and Frankie Rowley, the protagonist of Sue Miller’s new novel, THE ARSONIST, is no exception. It is 1998 (references to the Monica Lewinsky scandal and the attacks on U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam --- not to mention the paucity of cell phones --- provide temporal clues), and after spending 15 years as an aid worker in Africa, Frankie has returned to Pomeroy, the New Hampshire town where her family has a summer place.
A lanky, forthright redhead, Frankie has conducted her life, including her sex life, pretty much the way an unattached man would, putting work first and taking her bodily pleasures where she will. Now, though, she isn’t sure she’ll go back to Africa, dissatisfied with the impermanence of her relationships and the ultimate uselessness of her efforts. “I had one affair after another with people essentially in transit,” she says. “And my work life was the same…. If you flood a place with free food, for instance, farmers don’t bother to plant. What would be the point? So you perpetuate hunger, in a way, by trying to alleviate it.”
She is not the only fugitive in Pomeroy. Her parents, Sylvia and Alfie, have just retired from academia and plan to live in the New Hampshire farmhouse year-round. Alfie is suffering from dementia, possibly early Alzheimer’s, and Sylvia, too, could be described as burned out: drinking too much, sleeping too little, worried about their future, tired of being the unsung, responsible party in the marriage while her husband gets the Great Man treatment.
"The richness and complexity of Miller’s themes, the book’s exuberant but never showy sense of place...the ease with which she moves from Africa to New Hampshire, from one point of view to the next, all leave me in awe of her prowess."
The third of Miller’s three narrative voices belongs to Bud Jacobs, another refugee --- in his case from the cosmopolitan journalistic world of Washington, D.C. Burned out on covering politics-as-usual, he buys Pomeroy’s local newspaper and resolves to hunker down and become a permanent part of the community. He and Frankie fall for each other, but it is unclear if an accommodation is possible between his commitment to small-town life and her restless engagement with the wider world.
The literal burning suggested by the title is a powerful presence in THE ARSONIST. There is a spate of house fires, all affecting “summer people” and designed to destroy property rather than take lives. The mystery of who is responsible --- and which house will be next --- runs through the book like a tension-wire, ratcheting up the suspense and throwing into relief the chronic tension between working-class year-rounders and wealthier seasonal residents. Bud, who belongs to neither camp, ponders the question of “whose home Pomeroy was, whose experience defined it…who owned the town and who merely used it.”
Arson has changed the place. People never used to lock their doors; now they keep guns by the bed and hire guards and purchase alarm systems. To Frankie, it seems that it has become more like East Africa, where, when she was not working at a feeding station in the grasslands, she lived in a heavily guarded compound in Nairobi. Western aid workers, she tells Bud, had “a way out,” whereas the people they were helping were doomed to stay. Same with summer people and locals in Pomeroy.
The richness and complexity of Miller’s themes, the book’s exuberant but never showy sense of place (woods, meadow flowers, blackberry canes, the icy shock of swimming holes), the ease with which she moves from Africa to New Hampshire, from one point of view to the next, all leave me in awe of her prowess. This is her 10th novel. I think I’ve read them all, beginning with THE GOOD MOTHER in 1986 (I remember discussing that book’s terrifying moral conundrum --- a divorced woman must decide if her boyfriend has been sexually molesting her child --- with friends), so Miller has been with me, in effect, for nearly 30 years. Her emotional subtlety and intelligent, self-assured storytelling have never faltered.
The choices in THE ARSONIST are not as starkly dramatic as those in THE GOOD MOTHER. Miller has aged, and her concerns have ripened. At first, in fact, the characters who interested me most were the older ones. Sylvia Rowley seemed by far the most resonant, with her uneasy brew of affection and resentment, and I couldn’t help thinking that Miller herself, who is about 70, got more deeply into Sylvia’s psyche than into the 40-something passions of Frankie and Bud. Even Alfie, by turns tragically or irritatingly out of it, has moments of self-knowledge and sweetness that are deeply touching.
But Frankie and Bud grew on me as the novel progressed through a series of momentous events: more fires, including the Rowleys’ own barn; Alfie’s further decline and sudden disappearance, triggering a massive local search; the arrest of a local boy with a terrible history of neglect. I began to see how Sylvia’s frustrations --- the way she lived in Alfie’s shadow; her confession to her daughter one night that she no longer loved him, that she hadn’t for a long time, even before his dementia; her guilty, fleeting thought that his death would liberate her --- find a parallel in Frankie’s ambivalence about Bud. Frankie wants permanent love, a sense of home, but she also wants to be free.
That contradiction is at the core of THE ARSONIST: You have to let go --- learn to live with losses and accept mysteries --– while at the same time attempting to connect. Sylvia advises Frankie to look for what sustains rather than compels her; Frankie herself realizes that she has a habit of keeping coolly apart in relationships rather than saying what she feels and striving for what she wants. (When she criticizes Bud’s two failed marriages, Sylvia defends him: “He tried.”)
Sometimes I think a novelist should be measured more by her endings than her beginnings (lots of books start well and then fall off). In Miller’s moving conclusion to THE ARSONIST (Mozart’s clarinet concerto was on the radio; I cried), what happens to Frankie and Bud somehow manages to be both open-ended and satisfyingly complete. In the ashes of the fires, warmth abides.
Reviewed by Kathy Weissman on June 27, 2014