Someone is setting fire to the houses of Pomeroy, New Hampshire, in Sue Miller’s latest novel, but that’s beside the point. The important thing is that Francesca “Frankie” Rowley has returned from a long sojourn in Africa as an aid worker and she doesn’t know what to do with herself. Besides, the thing that lights her fire is Bud Jacobs, the local newspaper editor whose life is just as up in the air as hers is. The two launch a passionate affair even as everyone else’s summer home is being torched.
But there are other things that concern Frankie, who’s a little, er, burned out from both the futility and tiny, ephemeral triumphs of her work in Africa. She’s moved back in with her parents and neither she nor they know whether the move is permanent. Moreover, her father, who has never been attentive to Frankie, her sister Liz or their mother Sylvia, is sinking into dementia.
Miller’s skill as a writer has always allowed her readers to stick with a story no matter how self-absorbed her characters are. Part of this success is because Miller (Lake Shore Limited, The Senator’s Wife) tends to focus on intelligent women forced to choose between passions and duties that seem irreconcilable. Should Frankie stay near her parents, who need her? Should she stay with Bud? Should she return to Africa, where she can do her best work and where there are no doubt other men waiting?
The Arsonist is a worthy snapshot of the dilemmas faced by certain women of a certain time and how they choose to tackle them.