THE ARSONIST by Sue Miller



As a series of fires in a small New Hampshire town exposes tensions between summer and year-round residents, the members of one in-between family confront their own desires, limitations and capacities to love in Miller's latest (The Lake Shore Limited, 2010, etc.).

Burned out on her transient life working for an NGO in Africa, Frankie takes a possibly permanent leave and comes to stay with her parents, Sylvia and Alfie, in Pomeroy, N.H., where they have recently retired after years of summering there. The night of Frankie’s arrival coincides with the town’s first house fire, which everyone assumes was an accident. Days later, at the annual Fourth of July tea, Frankie begins a flirtation with Bud, who runs Pomeroy’s newspaper, and accompanies him to the site of the fire so he can take pictures. When a second fire occurs, again at a home belonging to summer residents, Bud begins to wonder if arson is involved. Soon there are more fires—at least six—and Bud is actively covering the story. Frankie becomes more involved than she’d like after realizing she may have seen the arsonist’s car the night of the first fire. Her description helps lead to an arrest. As the investigation meanders—one of the least exciting detective stories ever—Frankie and Bud begin falling in love, though both are in their 40s and on different life paths. But the heart of the story really lies in Sylvia and Alfie’s marriage. For years, seemingly super-competent Sylvia has been secretly dissatisfied with her marriage to self-important but only moderately successful college professor Alfie. Now Alfie’s mind is failing and she’s stuck caring for him. Miller’s portrayal of early Alzheimer’s and the toll it takes on a family is disturbingly accurate and avoids the sentimental uplift prevalent in issue-oriented fiction. Any spouse who has been there will recognize Sylvia’s guilt, anger, protectiveness and helplessness as she watches Alfie deteriorate.

While the melodrama fails to ignite, Miller captures all the complicated nuances of a family in crisis.

Pub Date: June 24th, 2014
ISBN: 978-0-307-59479-2
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1st, 2014


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