“Kids don’t need magic kisses. Only adults are not happy.”
– Sue Miller, The Arsonist
Reid: Statistically 94 per cent of all serial arsonists are male, 75 per cent are white and few, if any, are ever caught.
Prentiss: Few? You don’t have a percentage?
Reid: 16 per cent. And those 16 per cent set thirty-plus fires before they’re ever apprehended.
–Criminal Minds, “Ashes to Dust”, Season 2, Episode 19
“We all live in a house on fire, no fire department to call; no way out.”
– Tennessee Williams, The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore
Two things happen simultaneously as The Arsonist opens: Frankie Rowley arrives at her parents’ home, in the small town of Pomeroy, New Hampshire, and the fires begin. Even without the latter, Sue Miller’s latest would be a novel of dislocation and upheaval; as it stands, the escalation of the titular arsonist mirrors (and heightens) the private turmoil in the lives of the characters until the two narrative strands combine, spilling over and entwining until they become impossible to separate.
Frankie finds herself at a crossroads, caught in a curious limbo of indecision; after fifteen years in Africa, working for an NGO, she finds her life suddenly unsatisfying, and isn’t sure if or when she’s going back. At the same time, she has no idea what she does want, and she is terrified of the blankness that rises up whenever she contemplates her suddenly uncertain future. She spends most of the novel living as Schrodinger’s cat, behaving as if both of her options (to stay or to go back) are equally true at the same time – an untenable position. Her parents, Sylvia and Alfie, are in the midst of their own transition, having recently retired to what used to be their summer home, and the move is an adjustment for both of them in more ways than one. Sylvia in particular is trying to craft a new role in life, and feel at home in a place she loved primarily because it was not her home; she’s thoroughly tired of being the one in charge of their joint lives, the nag, the caretaker, the responsible one … a resentment that only builds as Alfie starts showing early signs of Alzheimer’s. Even Bud Jacobs, editor and proprietor of the local newspaper (with whom Frankie begins a relationship as the summer progresses) becomes caught up in the tension of uncertainty, second-guessing his decision to settle in Pomeroy for good, having abandoned a successful career as a big-city journalist.
As a result, the novel is an exploration into the necessary components for … I’m not even sure how to describe it. It isn’t happiness, per se, because there is no such thing as a happily ever after, at least not a permanent one. Perfect happiness is a transitory phenomenon within the world of the book, of which all of the characters in the book are deeply aware. Instead, they are groping blindly after … I suppose contentment would be the best way to describe it. While the precise requirements vary from person to person, they’re all looking to build a satisfactory life – imperfect, to be sure, but better than all of the possible alternatives. In the end, they’re trying to place themselves in a better position than they were in before: one with more potential for happiness.
Because of the arsonist, because of Alfie’s decline, because Frankie has come home to (possibly) stay, exploration of emotions is at the heart of the novel: specifically the hidden, secret ones that we (almost) never admit to aloud, or even in our own minds. These are the thoughts and feelings that we quash quickly and silently and guiltily as soon as we become conscious of them. The bad emotions, that everyone has, and yet we’re all ashamed of: pleasure and excitement sparked by something objectively terrible that benefits us, but that negatively impacts others around us; secret satisfaction at being proved right, even when the right conclusion has devastating results; resentment at an additional burden being placed on our shoulders, even when the source of that burden is in no way to blame. These thoughts are natural, human, bubbling up in the hearts and minds of even the kindest and nicest of us. And yet, they invariably provoke reactions of shame and guilt. We berate ourselves for them, thinking that if we were better, we simply wouldn’t think or feel these shameful, guilty, horrible things. Even as we do, the novel assures us that these thoughts are both perfectly natural and not uncommon. Singularity is the most damning aspect of these thoughts, when we feel that everyone else around us (so much better and kinder and stronger than we ourselves could ever hope to be) is immune to such petty feelings.
The events of The Arsonist unfold during the summer of 1998 (news of the Lewinsky scandal is a ubiquitous topic of conversation before it is displaced by talk of the fires; Frankie is deeply affected by the American embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania on August 7), and yet for all the details tying the novel to a precise date, it’s peculiarly timeless, far more firmly anchored in place rather than time. Miller looks beyond the span of the fires, both forward and backwards. It’s necessary to study the past of the characters and the town of Pomeroy, to understand how everyone and everything arrived at this moment in time. We also get tantalizing glimpses of what will be, after the summer is over and the fires end.
So much of this novel rings true, from the larger currents to the tiniest detail, from the universal truth that putting on fresh eye make-up always improves one’s outlook on life, to the inescapable urge to seek a “grown-up” to talk to in time of crisis, no matter how old we grow. The title is fundamentally misleading, however, because the arsonist is not what matters. Although his actions form a compelling backdrop, and create conflict in Pomeroy, his identity is ultimately irrelevant; he is a catalyst, nothing more. The focus is on the town’s reaction to his crimes, and on Frankie and Sylvia, Bud and Alfie, zeroing in on a mother and daughter and the men in their lives, all of whom find themselves at a turning point, voluntarily or otherwise. You’re initially drawn in because of the idea of crime and mystery; instead, the hypnotizing human interaction is what keeps you spellbound.