Sue Miller’s The Arsonist is a novel following a middle aged protagonist, Frankie, as she leaves behind her aids work in Africa and returns to her family home in the small town of Pomeroy, New Hampshire. Soon after her arrival she meets Bud, the owner of the local paper, and they start dating. At the same time, a local arsonist begins setting homes on fire, specifically targeting the properties of the ‘summer people’.
At first glance, this story may be seen to focus on solving the mystery of who was the culprit in the arsons. In fact, the main focus of the novel is Frankie’s romance. Miller offers an insight into what dating is like for middle aged men and women – something rarely explored in literature. She manages to do this with a certain level of maturity and sophistication. The fires themselves act as a backdrop to Frankie’s life.
Her lack of direction becomes more and more apparent the longer that she resides in the small town, and the longer the mystery remains unsolved. As the threat of the arsonist grows in intensity, so does Frankie’s sense of displacement.
Miller uses details of her plot to explore a number of culturally significant themes. For example, only the homes of the ‘summer people’ are targeted by the arsonist, who is presumed to be a permanent resident of the town. This symbolises the resentment between the working and middle classes of Pomeroy – a resentment which is common throughout much of America. Additionally, by looking at Frankie’s sense of displacement and unease, Miller examines the true meaning of what makes a home; whether it’s in the place or the people.
She also explores the struggle of the middle aged who have yet to find a ‘purpose’ – and whether the plethora of career options open to Americans may actually be quite detrimental. These make The Arsonist more than just a romance novel. The story becomes realistic and relevant to our own lives.
However, Miller falters when it comes to keeping her story engaging. She has a tendency to include irrelevant and often mundane descriptions. Without these, her novel would have been much less strenuous a read.
Overall, The Arsonist successfully explores some interesting themes, especially the struggle of feeling as though one is ‘temporising’, lacking purpose or direction. The premise of the story has potential, but the way it is written is disappointing. Miller could have replaced her tedious descriptions with further character development, subplots, and intrigue, thus creating an overall more enjoyable read.
Image Credit: Lisa Leslie