Wednesday, March 11, 2015

THE ARSONIST by Sue Miller

Pomeroy, NH, is a summer retreat for New Englanders who can afford a second home.  Sylvia and Alfie, both college professors, have decided to retire to their vacation home, especially now that Alfie is showing definite signs of Alzheimer’s.  Frankie, their forty-something daughter, is taking a break from her aid work in Africa to visit her parents and figure out what she wants to do next.  She meets Bud, a transplant to the area, who has taken ownership of the weekly newspaper.  He has plenty on his plate at the moment, because an arsonist, probably a local, has been torching summer mansions before the occupants arrive for the season.  We have then three major engrossing and intertwined plots:  Alfie’s decline, Frankie and Bud’s romance, and the mystery of the arsonist.  My only complaint really is that I didn’t particularly like how all of these situations got resolved, but such is life, I suppose.  Frankie is the main character, and she’s a bit elusive both to me as the reader and to Bud as well.  She makes it clear that she has no intention of settling permanently in Pomeroy, but then where will she go?  To a desk job in NYC?  Back to Africa?  She has become increasingly jaded about her work, as she has come to feel that everything she is doing in Africa is futile and that life for many Kenyans is a vicious circle.  In fact, some of the Africans starve their families in order to appear more in need of food supplies from Frankie’s group.  Her life in a compound in Nairobi makes her feel hypocritical, though, about how much better off she is than the people she is serving, and that dichotomy mirrors the tension between the locals and the summer people in Pomeroy.  Another theme in the book is that we often guiltily enjoy other people’s hardships.  Bud can barely curb his enthusiasm for the arson news, and Frankie is aware of the superiority she feels over everyone in the U.S. for her do-gooder lifestyle.  Sylvia is ecstatic when a physician confirms Alfie’s dementia, because now she can stop wondering if her suspicions are justified.  Now I feel a bit as though Sue Miller has granted me permission to take pleasure in someone else’s plight from time to time, but that’s probably not a good thing.


Kris said...

I like your take on the novel. Is it your first from Miller? I ask because she's very good at the voyeuristic vibe, if you know what I mean. She has us see what ordinarily we wouldn't and fires a sense of prurience sometimes. I like her though and have pretty much all of her books.

PattisPages said...

Thanks, Kris. I've posted 4 other Sue Miller novels on this blog. I'm a big fan of hers as well. Click on the Author Index (upper right just below the cat photo) to get links to the other reviews.

Kris said...

Doh! I should have done that before commenting. Looks like it was early enough that coffee hadn't jump started my brain!