Despite its title, and despite that it starts with protagonist Frankie Rowley smelling smoke "as she stood at the edge of the old dark dirt road," Sue Miller's "The Arsonist" is more about family love and the complicated paths people take toward discovering who they want to be than it is about burning houses in a New Hampshire vacation town.
Miller is known for her lyrical, compelling prose as well as her ability to cast a new lens on familiar family dynamics, and she does these things and more in her 11th novel. Her portrayal of the fragility of relationships and fear of the unknown — of the things that happen to and around us that we can't control — are spot-on, reminding how quickly and unexpectedly lives, plans and dreams can be derailed.
As in Miller's earlier novels, "While I Was Gone" and "The Senator's Wife," a family is being tested in "The Arsonist," where midlife romance, Alzheimer's and a person who is burning down the houses of summer people arrive along with Frankie. She has come home after 15 years working for a nonprofit in Africa. In her 40s, she's on a possibly permanent leave when she moves into her retired parents' farmhouse in Pomeroy, N.H.
There, she begins a relationship with the local newspaper editor, Bud, who is digging into the cause of the fires. As Bud gets deeper into the case, so does Frankie, who realizes she might have seen the arsonist's car the night she arrived home.
Home — where it is, how we find it and even whether it's a "what" or a "who" — sits at the heart of "The Arsonist," as does the story is Frankie's parents, Sylvia and Alfie, whose marriage is not what it has always seemed. Frankie and Sylvia suffer enormous guilt, anger and confusion as Alfie's Alzheimer's worsens and Sylvia fiercely cares for the man she hoped to perhaps one day be free from.
Around them is a threatened town of people who used to never lock their doors, but who now look at their neighbors with fear and suspicion.
Provocative, suspenseful and emotional, "The Arsonist" doesn't provide a neat wrap-up with all questions answered. Miller is a nuanced storyteller who portrays real life, and real life rarely has a neat ending.
Cindy Wolfe Boynton is a Connecticut-based freelance writer and writing instructor.