22 May 2014

Review: The Arsonist by Sue Miller

The Arsonist by Sue MillerI've been a fan of Sue Miller's for, well, years. I haven't read her entire body of work, but I've always felt she has an innate sense of family dynamics and a candid view of relationships.

Her newest novel, The Arsonist, out next month, takes place in a community in crisis. But instead of focusing on the obvious issues associated with arson, Miller uses the unease, the fear, and the almost surreal circumstances to examine four people whose connection to the town is difficult to define.

This haunting, introspective story will burrow into your mind, leaving you to ponder some of life's difficult questions.

General situation: When a serial arsonist targets summer homes in Pomeroy, New Hampshire, just as the season begins, everyone feels afraid. While townsfolk and land-owning vacationers debate safety measures and discuss suspects, four members of the community face life-altering issues of their own.

The characters in limbo: Although Sylvia Rowley's grandparents lived in Pomeroy full-time and Sylvia spent her senior year in high school there, she has really never been more than a summer visitor until recently. Now that she and her husband, Alfie, have retired from university life, they've modernized the old family farmhouse and hope to find a permanent place in the community.

Forty-something Frankie Rowley, on leave from relief work in Africa, is home for a visit. Burned out on her job, feeling shattered from a broken relationship, and taken by surprise at how much her parents have aged since she last saw them, Frankie is unsure where she belongs.

A couple of years earlier, Bud Jacobs, a hot-shot, inside-the-beltway political journalist, bought the Pomeroy weekly, hoping to set down roots and make a difference in people's lives. Although he hasn't second-guessed his decision to run the newspaper, life in New Hampshire isn't quite what he's used to.

Themes and what I thought about: Miller has the inside scoop on the unique issues associated with midlife relationships. Although older couples can still get hot and heavy and can even hope for a happily ever after, they bring a lifetime of experience and expectations with them. They have careers and personal goals, aging parents and families, and a host of concerns that kids half their age barely even think about. I am still blown away by Miller's ability find the core of a mature relationship: not devoid of romance but colored by reality.

In a similar vein, Miller cracks open the outer shell of a long-term marriage and what she sees inside is the sometimes ugly truth. Retirement is not always the heaven that people dream of: Without the focus of work and a daily routine, some couples begin to flounder. Add in the general problems of aging, moving to a new home, and living on a fixed income and it's no surprise that older spouses begin to wonder who exactly it was they married all those years ago.

Besides relationships, Miller explores the politics of place, small-town life, aging, life changes, and the meaning of home. Further topics for thought or for book club discussion can be found in the excellent Reader's Guide on the Random House website.

General thoughts: Despite its title, The Arsonist is less about the burning of houses than it is about the burning of the past and where one goes from there: retreat and rebuild or move forward on a new path? Few authors capture family dynamics and mature love as brilliantly as Sue Miller does.

Published by Random House / Knopf, June 24, 2014
ISBN-13: 9780307594792
Source: Review (see review policy)
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy)


(Diane) bookchickdi 5/22/14, 7:26 AM  

What a fantastic review! I haven't read much of Sue Miller's recent work, but I am definitely picking this one up.

bermudaonion 5/22/14, 7:48 AM  

Wow, I've never read Miller and now I'm wondering why. This sounds terrific!

Karen White 5/22/14, 8:44 AM  

VERY excited she has a new book. I went on a binge and read a bunch of her books last summer. I think THE LAKESHORE LIMITED and THE SENATOR'S WIFE are my favs.

Anita LeBeau 5/22/14, 8:54 AM  

I know I've read a couple of her older books, a long time ago. This new book sounds very interesting. Wow is June just chock full of good books. Thanks!

Beth Hoffman 5/22/14, 9:46 AM  

I've always enjoyed Sue Miller's stories and this one sounds like another winner.

As a side note, when I saw the cover I thought of your photography!

Mystica 5/22/14, 10:40 PM  

A new author for me. Thanks for the review.

Sarah (Sarah's Book Shelves) 5/23/14, 8:02 AM  

I loved The Senator's Wife (such a unique look at marriage) and this one sounds great as well. I'm adding to it to my TBR list.
Great review!

Daryl 5/23/14, 11:19 AM  

sounds really interesting … i am putting it on my to read list ..thanks!

thecuecard 5/26/14, 3:20 PM  

thanks for the review. I'll be looking for this one.

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