The lesson was there were things you had to let go of, losses and mysteries you had to learn to live with.
Sue Miller‘s new book, The Arsonist, is about the biggest things that happen in the world and how anyone manages to keep going despite them, about the edges of the divides between us that we stand near and peer across, and most of all, about falling into or out of love, how easy and sudden and unexpected love creeps up on you or sprints away from you. Maybe, then, this is a book about how little control we really have in the world, and how coming to terms with that is never simple.
After 15 years of working for an NGO in Africa, Frankie has come home. She usually drops by for a visit, but this time she’s not sure she wants to go back. But how can she stay? She’s been setting up food stations, fighting hunger at refugee camps, and compared to where she was in the world, life in the quaint New Hampshire town her parents have retired to is a life of ease, abundance, and in the face of all the world’s plight, insignificance.
Frankie’s parents, Sylvia and Alfie, were once summer people in the town of Pomeroy, but in retirement they’ve chosen to move full-time to the old farmhouse which has acted as the family’s summer vacation home, hoping to ease the pressures of their own quiet crises with a quiet life. Intellectual Alfie’s memory loss seems to be getting worse and worse, and Sylvia keeps gulping down glasses of wine and early afternoon drinks, hoping to find a way to cope with what she fears could be the end of her husband as she knows him.
In the midst of all this disaster, big and little, global and familial, an additional, artificial one is created: fires begin to bloom at night, setting homes ablaze. When Frankie first hears the siren of the fire truck, a foreign sound to her after her time in Africa, she doesn’t recognize it, and thinks it must be some sort of animal. The local paper owner Bud, a city refugee himself, reports on the fires as he struggles to decipher Frankie’s intentions–will she stay or will she go? Is she capable, after seeing so much world out there, of caring about this small little piece of it here?
I’m a fan of long books, and I loved the time Miller took telling the beginning of this story. As other reviewers on both Goodreads and Amazon complained, however, the story is uneven, as the end quickly wraps up. If anything, though, I think this is a testament The Arsonist‘s ability to build characters that draw us in so much we are angry when they leave us. I could have happily read this book, doubled in length. I’m also a huge fan of leaving mysteries unsolved, and not wrapping up all the details precisely, and Miller manages to do this here, without leaving the reader feeling cheated. If you do finish this book wanting a simple conclusion to its many questions, big and small, you haven’t been paying attention.