‘The Arsonist’ by Sue Miller


2014, 304 p.

Sue Miller and Anne Tyler are my comfort food reads.  I must confess to occasionally confusing the two authors and their works, but I happily grab either of their new books when I see them on the shelves at the library. (Having said that, I realize that I haven’t read Anne Tyler’s Spool of Blue Thread which has probably received the most ‘literary’ recognition of any of her recent books in terms of its recent Booker Prize shortlisting).

Even though Sue Miller has a couple of years on me, I feel as if I have ‘grown up’ with her, right from the first book of hers that I read, The Good Mother (long before I started this blog). I’ve followed her characters through marriage separations, repartnerings, and more recently through her autobiographical book on watching a much-loved parent subsiding into dementia.  I like her domesticity, the leaving and returning to home, the regrets and anxieties and the lived-in-ness of her books.  Yes, there is a similarity between them all, set as they usually are, on the east coast of America amongst educated, progressive-leaning middle-class people who seem familiar.

This book follows the pattern. Set in 1998,  Frankie, a forty-ish aid worker has recently returned from Kenya (ah! snap! another synchronicity!  She’s obviously been to Lamu, as I have, too!). After yet another failed romance and rather jaded by the whole humanitarian aid phenomenon, she’s not quite sure what her next career move is to be, so she takes a few months at her parents’ home in Pomeroy, New Hampshire. Her parents, Sylvia and Alfie, have retired full-time to Pomeroy to what had been the family holiday home, but it is becoming increasingly clear that Alfie is sliding into a type of dementia. Meanwhile Frankie finds herself gradually drawn into the small Pomeroy community as it becomes increasingly edgy and brittle after a series of fires are lit in the empty, or darkened, homes.  She is attracted to Bud, another recent arrival to Pomeroy who has come to take over the ailing local newspaper, and her feelings are reciprocated.

I concede that many readers would find this soporific and banal (and a little part of me feels this at times). As with other Sue Miller books, these characters live very much in their heads. But perhaps this is why I enjoy her books so much: reassurance that other people have their own internal dialogues as well!  The question of the arsonist’s identity serves as a who-dun-it device to tie the book together, but really- I just enjoyed observing and vicariously living through the characters who seem familiar enough to be friends, but different enough to be interesting in a domestic, voyeuristic way.

2 responses to “‘The Arsonist’ by Sue Miller

  1. Sometimes a comfort read is every bit as important as a challenging one. Right book, right time, right place – is everything. Thanks Resident Judge!

  2. I wouldn’t apologise, too many books have characters with nothing going on in their heads.

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