By Sue Miller
Alfred A. Knopf, $25.95, 320 pages
The main characters of Sue Miller’s new novel, “The Arsonist,” have all recently settled in the New Hampshire village of Pomeroy. To Frankie Rowley, it isn’t an entirely new place because she spent summers on the family farm her parents Sylvia and Alfie inherited. Now Sylvia and Alfie have just retired to live there permanently, but only a few weeks later, Sylvia notices that Alfie is often disoriented and forgetful. She’s terrified that he has Alzheimer’s, and she’s angry. Her married life has not been easy. They had to move from one college town to another because Alfie had a hard time getting tenure. Now she tells Frankie that caring for him will be a burden she will shoulder with bitter resignation rather than love. Frankie faces problems of her own. She is reluctant to continue her work with a humanitarian aid organization in Africa because of its ambiguities, so she is staying with parents while she figures out what else to do.
In contrast, Bud Jacobs, the owner, editor and chief bottle-washer of Pomeroy’s newspaper, is absolutely sure that he is doing what he wants. He had been a successful political journalist on a Washington newspaper, but discovered that “[a] lot of the action that makes news in Washington is pretty silly. Inconsequential really.” A couple of years earlier, he had bought the Pomeroy paper and settled happily into writing about the town meeting, the high school sports teams, the church suppers.
However, now he gets heavier stuff to report. A house goes up in flames. Then another and another. Even the Rowleys’ barn is torched. Clearly, an arsonist is setting the fires, but who can it be? Since all the burned properties are owned by summer residents, it seems that it could be a Pomeroy native who resents their presence: “The summer people had work elsewhere, personal lives elsewhere, all of which were invisible when they were here, whereas the townspeople’s lives and their work were visible to anyone who cared to look — especially when they were working in the summer for the summer people.”
The class difference between the dilettante summer people, who play at being at home in Pomeroy only during the sunny summer months, and the natives, who have to put up with the icy winter and limited opportunities, parallels the differences Frankie felt in Africa. She lived in a compound with a guard and a maid, while the locals trudged the perilous landscape seeking food and medical aid. While she knows that her work helps, she has learned that there’s no end to crises and refugees, and, too often, trucks of supplies donated for women and children are shanghaied by gangs of soldiers.
Ms. Miller writes intelligently about the topic of privilege and its discontents, mostly through Frankie’s conversations with Bud, but also in artful vignettes of the year Sylvia had spent in Pomeroy as a schoolgirl. Of course, there are no quick or easy resolutions to the disparities between the affluent and the fairly poor in Pomeroy, nor between the powerful — the soldiers, the white aid-workers — and the utterly powerless — the dispossessed — in Africa. Perhaps as a consequence, the interest in this issue fades, as does the initial attention to where and how people make a home and a living. The narrative engine of the burned houses takes over, not least because it has many elements of a detective story: an eager investigative reporter in Bud, an unpleasant police chief pursuing his own agenda, and several possible culprits. If the arsonist is indeed an aggrieved neighbor, which one? Or could it be a volunteer firefighter, who loves the fury of the flames so much that he cannot resist the urge to set a fire? Then, too, readers will notice that Alfie often wanders around at night. Has he become so addled that he is burning houses?
For about three quarters of “The Arsonist,” Ms. Miller juggles all her thematic and narrative elements deftly, expertly focusing readers’ attention on Frankie, then moving to her parents, or to Bud, who is falling in love with her, then to the townspeople trying to come up with a plan to catch the firebug. Ms. Miller has a strong sense of small-town life in New England, and a gift for vivid description that she displays in her depictions of the fire crew fighting blazes, of the colors of the aurora borealis swooping across the night sky, and most importantly, in her discrimination of the surprising urges that prompt people to reconstruct their lives. If this novel loses power toward the end, fizzling rather blazing to a finale, nonetheless it has much to interest and entertain. Admirers of Ms. Miller’s earlier novels will appreciate “The Arsonist,” though they will likely not rank it as highly as her best work.
Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.