I have a few female authors that I have a fondness for – they write literary novels, but they’re a little “chick-lit-y.” I’m slow to type the phrase, because I know what kind of a firestorm this kind of categorization can cause. Who exactly? Anita Shreve. Sue Monk Kidd. Lately, Liane Moriarity. And, of course, Sue Miller, who tore me up with The Good Mother.
Miller’s new novel, The Arsonist, is a perfectly satisfying book of its kind. The protagonist – Frankie Rowley – is a smart, attractive woman who is young enough to have a lot of life ahead of her, but old enough to have lived an interesting life so far. She comes home to the small New England town where her family used to summer, and where her parents have retired, to regroup after working in East Africa for 15 years. Her big life, full of adventure, suddenly seemed purposeless.
War and famine are replaced by small town conflict between year-rounders and the summer people, Frankie’s father’s descent into Alzheimer’s, and a series of empty-home arsons. And Frankie’s dead-end affair with a married colleague in Africa is eclipsed by a new relationship with the editor of the local paper. (My only negative about the book: Bud Jacobs is just too perfect.)
In another author’s hands, The Arsonist could have been a plot-driven romantic suspense novel. In other words, formulaic. But with Miller as the author, the reader gets much more: a story driven by character, human failing and ambiguity.
Examples? Frankie’s mom confesses that she finds caring for her demented husband particularly difficult, because she has no store of love for him built up over the years; she doesn’t love him and never did. Frankie is hurt, when after years away from her parents, she arrives home and is ready to go into rescue mode… but her mom’s not particularly interested in being rescued.
Frankie upends chick-lit expectations: when she finds happiness and contentment with her new love, she’s not satisfied. She’s got an itch that only a certain kind of job can fill. Even when she comes to her senses, Frankie doesn’t settle down. She treats her new love and their life together like a nest – she returns to its comfort, only to fly away again.
Of course, Miller’s most ambiguous character is the arsonist. When all is said and done, no one – including the reader – knows for sure who set Pomeroy’s fires. Almost everything about the case against Tink Snell can be interpreted to indicate his guilt or his innocence. And long after the trial’s not-guilty verdict, people wonder. Never knowing, yet going on. Such is the nature of life.