Click here to read reviewer Michael Leonard's take on The Arsonist.
The Arsonist is a story of transitions, of the changeable nature of relationships and the need for purpose that drives many of our life choices. A consummate storyteller, Miller inhabits her characters with deceptive ease: Frankie Rowley, an NGO aid worker on yet another hiatus from Africa; her parents, Sylvia and Alfie, her mother distant and efficient, her academic father recently given to troubling bouts of forgetfulness; and the new owner of the local newspaper, Bud Jacobs, a former Washington journalist seeking to set down roots in rural Pomeroy, New Hampshire.
It is the era of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. The town grows increasingly fearful in the wake of fires that have destroyed at least three summer homes. Pomeroy is a town that has made peace with the annual influx of summer residents. Locals provide services, managing a comfortable homogeneity that is somewhat stressed as more summer homes go up in flames—“arson” whispered among worried townsfolk.
Frankie is staying with her parents while she decides whether to return to her beloved Africa or find another direction in life. Acutely conscious of her parents’ presence in what has become their permanent residence since Alfie’s retirement, Frankie welcomes the opportunity to stay in her sister Liz’s nearly finished vacation cottage down the lane while Liz and her family return to their city home. Relishing the solitude and opportunity to work on the unfinished rooms, Frankie hopes her living there will serve as a deterrent as the arsonist continues to plague Pomeroy. Her attraction to Bud Jacobs adds another layer to Frankie’s dilemma about what direction her future might take, an unexpected but not unwelcome complication.
Miller skillfully juxtaposes her main characters and their perspectives. Frankie’s determined self-examination causes her to question her true motives in Africa, a concern that the work she does she is somehow complicit in creating, even continuing the problems faced by those they are meant to assist. She is confused by her inability to create a stable life, either in career or romance: “There is nowhere you’re going, nowhere you’re coming from.” Having grown used to a prickly relationship with what she views as an impossible-to-please mother, Frankie is surprised at their ability to communicate with one another, sharing intimate thoughts during quiet conversations. Both women worry over Alfie’s lapses and how to deal with a situation no one could have anticipated.
Sylvia is my favorite character, gradually revealing the youthful hopes she once nurtured and the painful realization of what her life with Alfie might become as his condition worsens: “The solitary assessing and reassessing. The managing of appearances. The covering up.”
While Bud Jacobs fleshes out the emotional landscape of the novel, the relevance of time and place, especially for Frankie, the actions of the arsonist add a frisson of danger, a reminder that life is never predictable as these characters grapple with tough decisions that will define their lives going forward. There are no ready solutions or easy choices, only the moments of connection in the present, opportunities to reach beyond the familiar and walk bravely into whatever the future may hold: “The lesson was there were things you had to let go of, losses and mysteries you had to learn to live with.”