Saturday, September 27, 2014

The "Live Heres" and The "Come Heres" in Sue Miller's "The Arsonist"

The Berkshire Hills were just a week shy of showing off their full autumn glory while Don and I were there visiting family.  I was still ruminating on a novel I had recently read by Sue Miller, one of my favorites and a woman I had the pleasure of meeting several years ago in Southwest Florida. In "The Arsonist," one of the themes is the subtle resentment and class distinctions between the small town inhabitants of Pomeroy, New Hampshire, and the summer people who invade from the fourth of July until Labor Day.

Once, I was the former and now I'm the latter and, believe me, I do laugh at the irony that has brought me to this extremely fortunate place in life. When I lived in Great Barrington I joined the moaning natives who railed at the New Yorkers who clogged our roads on summer weekends and smirked at the "peepers" who drove up from the city to see the leaves turn in September. During high school I waited on the winter visitors who skied at Butternut Basin, and in my younger adulthood, relied heavily on the big-spenders from Connecticut who kept our Becket barroom in the green.

I happen to know that Sue Miller has been a New England gal for many years now (Massachusetts) and I can say unequivocally that she got it just right. Her latest novel may be a quick read but it packs in several serious issues that provide food for thought, issues that seem to have been overlooked by many readers opining on the Internet.

I had no trouble empathizing with Frankie, a woman in her mid-forties who's come home to New Hampshire to evaluate her life so far and consider what the next step might be. Frankie has lived in Africa working for an NGO for over fifteen years. Life there was fast and furious, no long-term relationships flourish in a place where do-gooders come and go, where hard work and long hours appear not to make a dent in the lives of the people, and where burn-out rates are high. (theme number one)

Frankie is spending time with her parents, with whom she's never had a terribly close relationship. Once they were "come heres" who spent summers in Pomeroy, R and R from their city lives as academics. Now they have retired and are in Pomeroy for good. But the dream may be short lived. Frankie notices that her dad's behavior has changed and that her mom seems overly stressed and is drinking too much. A heart to heart between mother and daughter reveals that Alzheimer's disease is the culprit and that her mother has honest doubts about her ability to handle it with grace. (theme number two)

And then there's Bud. A former hot-shot journalist from DC who climbed off the gerbil wheel and purchased the local newspaper in Pomeroy with an eye to a simpler, more meaningful life away from the slugfest that politics has become. Can he bring Frankie around to his way of thinking? Could he be the first stable man in her life? Frankie's career defines her. Who would she be if she gave it up? (theme number three)

But, you're probably saying, the book is called "The Arsonist." What about that? It's true, fires are deliberately being set, mainly in empty summer homes, so at first, no one  in town much cares. "They've got insurance," is the typical response. Until the fires hit closer to home, one family just out to a local dance, another still in the house. Suddenly the little community of "live heres" and "come heres" needs to rally and Miller masterfully portrays the nuances of the extremely testy town meeting where the discussion ensues. (theme number four)

Sue Miller's latest novel is a very accessible read involving everyday problems and everyday people. As in life, things don't get wrapped up in nice little bows at the end. This fact may annoy some readers but it makes for a more interesting book and would also be a great book discussion if you happen to be looking for one. Give it a go and let me know what you think.

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