Frankie Rowley has lived in Africa for 15 years, providing food aid and engaging in a series of unfulfilling relationships. As The Arsonist opens, she is on her way to visit her retired parents in Pomeroy, NH, and contemplating not returning to Africa. Her parents have now moved permanently into their summer home, and Frankie thinks some time there will help her figure out what to do with the rest of her life. On her first night home, jet-lagged, she sets out on a walk, smells smoke, and sees a car careening down the mountain road. That fire is the first in a string, all of which are targeted at the homes of summer residents, whom the permanent residents both need and despise. The string of arsons exacerbate the tensions between the two groups, a process Miller describes quite tellingly. Frankie meanwhile cannot help comparing the class differences in New Hampshire with the more extreme situations she encountered in Africa.
Frankie's parents, Alfie and Sylvia, have decided to become year-round residents of Pomeroy, but that plan is thrown into jeopardy by Alfie's deepening dementia and their fear over the fires. Sylvia must also deal with the fact that events have put an entirely different face on her unhappy marriage (Frankie is stunned when Sylvia openly confesses she does not love Alfie--and may never have done so).
Frankie begins a romance with Bud, the editor of the local newspaper, for whom the arsons and the related investigation have become a major story. Bud was once a high-flying political journalist in Washington, but decided a few years ago, following his second divorce, that he wanted a different kind of life. He bought the small-town paper and methodically and respectfully worked his way into the community in a way summer residents would never contemplate. As their romance deepens, Bud tries to convince Frankie that she, too, could build a meaningful life in Pomeroy.
While Frankie is the first character we meet and the other two narrators--Bud and Sylvia--are introduced through their relationships with her, to me she is the least interesting of the three. Sylvia's trials as Alfie's caregiver (all the while wishing she could be free of him) are compelling reading, and Bud's essential goodness provides moral ballast to the story. I enjoyed the ending's mix of ambiguity and resolution, although I note that other reader-reviewers have found it unsatisfying. Although this is not my favorite Sue Miller, her elegant writing and the exploration of the themes of home, family, and class make the book a worthwhile read.
Class has no relevance to our lives. . . . Your father is an intellectual.
I'm up for it now, he said, the weekly pace and making what you can of what's around you. . . . Try having a home. I've been floating along on top of that notion for a long time.
Maybe, Frankie thought, home--what felt like home--was just a way of being in the world that felt Alfie-like to him, like being the person he'd been before the changes that were slowly turning him into someone else began. Maybe by home he meant the time when he felt whole, when he felt like himself. The time--and perhaps one of the places--where the world seemed to recognize him in some deep way, seemed to say, Come in, we've been expecting you. Exactly you.