Books · Emotional Health · Marriage & Life Partners

Dr. Ford Reviews: Sue Miller’s ‘The Arsonist’—Love’s Dangerous Spark

Cecilia Ford, who has been a psychologist in private practice in New York City since 1987, has addressed emotional issues for Women’s Voices in many articles over the years. This week she commends a novel by Sue Miller that delves into the complex issues in long-term relationships—as well as the sense of family and obligation that binds us to each other.


9781408857229Anyone lucky enough to own a summer home knows that special tensions exist between the year-round residents and those who are seasonal. The latter, usually more well-off and worldly, descend upon the community every year, bolstering, and sometimes sustaining, its economy—yet they are not always welcomed with a spirit of gratitude. Sue Miller has set her latest novel, The Arsonist, against the backdrop of these tensions in a community called Pomeroy, New Hampshire. She weaves into her story her classic themes, among them the vicissitudes of long-term marriages, the conflicts posed between a women’s need to develop her sense of self and the obligations and pleasures of relationships, and the ways these issues are impacted by the process of maturing and aging.

Miller’s protagonist, Frankie Rowley, has spent her adult life as an aid worker in Africa, a career that has made her a perpetual visitor, if not interloper, in others’ communities. Now, middle-aged, she has returned to her parents’ summer community of Pomeroy to reassess and perhaps redirect her life. Meanwhile, her parents—both academics—have recently retired there, and when Frankie arrives she finds that her father, Alfie, has begun to show the early signs of dementia. Her arrival also coincides with the beginning of a spree of arson fires to the unoccupied homes of summer residents. The local authorities are wondering if these fires might represent a retaliation against the “seasonal” families by a disgruntled local.

The arson also is a metaphor for the strangled emotional passions of the Rowley family itself. Alfie, a cool and cerebral Harvard man, at first seemed an attractive choice to Sylvie, his wife, who had had a passionate affair with a local boy before setting off to college. But as her marriage develops, Sylvia discoveres that he is detached from his emotional life, and while not unkind, his career and needs have dominated their lives in a way that has left her feeling overburdened and cheated. Now, facing the prospect of caring for him as he loses himself to dementia, she admits to Frankie that she hasn’t loved him for a long time. Miller does a wonderful job, as usual, of portraying the complex issues in long-term relationships as well as the sense of family and obligation that bind us to each other.

Frankie, meanwhile, has not been able to commit herself to one man—a result, we begin to understand, only partly due to her peripatetic work life. The coolness of her parents’ relationship, as well as her mother’s lifelong ambivalence about her parental role, have both taken a toll on their daughter. Like many of Miller’s female characters, however, Frankie has a deeply sensual side, and she has found expression for her sexuality where she could with various lovers along the way. Now, back in the United States, possibly for good, she no longer has her work to call her away when she becomes involved with a new one, a Washington journalist named Bud Jacobs who has recently bought the local paper. The depiction of their affair lets Miller once again display her exceptional understanding of female sexuality and the uniquely artful way she has of portraying it as a fully integrated part of her characters’ lives.

Against the backdrop of the increasingly alarmed town whose siege by the arsonist is dominating everyone’s thoughts, Bud, who is wary due to his two failed marriages, and Frankie, who has never fully acknowledge her ambivalence about commitment, gradually let down their defenses and become intimate in an organic and yet urgent way.

Bud is subsequently wounded and furious when Frankie decides—after helping her parents move back to their Connecticut college town so that Sylvie can get the help she needs in caring for Alfie—that she must go to New York to pursue her career, vague and unformed as her ambitions might be. Her need to separate herself from him in order to retain her sense of herself is another psychological truth that Miller writes of so knowingly. And the attempt at a positive resolution of this conflict is as complicated, messy, and real as it gets in life itself.

Sue Miller is has always been someone who writes about women characters, but with a depth and subtlety that raises her way above the level of “chick lit.” Starting with her extraordinary debut, The Good Mother, she has consistently addressed issues that are central to women’s lives with dead-on accuracy and psychological understanding. As she has aged, so have her characters and their concerns. To follow the lives of complex grown-up women with real, grown-up problems not easily solved, enter the world of Sue Miller.

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