The Arsonist by Sue Miller: Reliably good, emotionally intelligent fiction

Cover imageIt’s a little while since I’ve read a Sue Miller novel. She’s an author that I’ve stayed with for many years, starting with The Good Father published way back in 1986. She writes the kind of quietly insightful novel, often set in small-town America, of which I’m very fond. At the core of her writing are relationships between men and women – their passions, joys, and tensions – the ways in which they manage the constant round of compromise and negotiation, or not. When a new Miller appears on the horizon it’s like a date in the diary with an old friend, something to look forward to and savour. There’s usually a hook on which she hangs her subtle explorations and in this case it’s the burning down of summer houses in the small New Hampshire town of Pomeroy.

Frankie has come back to the family holiday house she feels most at home in, fresh from her latest stint working as an NGO health worker in Kenya. She’s not sure if she will return – her habitual affairs with unavailable men, her doubts about the usefulness of her work and her reasons for doing it have left her unsure of her next move. Her parents have recently retired, planning to live full-time in Pomeroy after what is for Sylvia a lifetime of summers spent there. Frankie notices changes in her father, small absences and confusions that can at first be overlooked but eventually must be faced. At the annual July 4th tea party she meets Bud, the owner of the local newspaper and a newcomer to Pomeroy having left his rootless Washington newspaper days behind. Gradually the attraction between them grows advancing with all the caution of two middle-aged people, wise and a little bruised by experience. All this set against a backdrop of holiday homes burning down, increasing anxiety about arson attacks and the burgeoning tensions between the summer people and the locals.

One of the things I’ve always admired about Miller is her subtlety. In my magazine editor days I remember reading a Jodi Picoult after which I felt as if I’d been bludgeoned with whatever ‘issue’ that particular novel was about. Picoult’s novels are cleverly written and highly addictive but subtlety is not her strong suit. Miller, on the other hand, has got it nailed – she unflinchingly deals with the hard truths and difficult choices that lie beneath the surface of all our lives within a framework of nuanced, seemingly effortless storytelling. Frankie’s struggle with the tensions between what is clearly more than a passing fancy for Bud and her need for work which she will not find within the confines of Pomeroy, the complexities of Sylvia’s marriage and her mixed emotions at what Alfie’s dementia will mean for her and Bud’s wariness about becoming too involved with a woman who looks set for flight are all dealt with perceptively and sensitively. On a larger scale, the divisions between the locals, the summer people and the blow-ins, the question of class and the effects of the rich parachuting themselves every year into a community and expecting to become part of it for just a few fleeting weeks are carefully observed. Over it all hangs our need as individuals to belong somewhere or with someone no matter how much we try to distance ourselves from that need. Another thoroughly good read, then. Nothing to set the world on fire (sorry!) but one which will offer a few hours of intelligent absorption and reflection.

Do you have an author you turn to for a reliably good read? Let me know if you do. I’m always on the lookout for someone new.


13 thoughts on “The Arsonist by Sue Miller: Reliably good, emotionally intelligent fiction”

    1. Glad you liked it, Helen, even if it does mean that TBR teeters on the brink! And I’m afraid it was 1986. I had to look it up – made me feel a little queasy.

    1. I do hope you like it, Gemma. I think she’s one of those writers that quietly gets on with it – no bells and whistles just a damn good read.

    1. I do, indeed, Claire. You might like to know that Anne Tyler has a one-word puff on The Arsonist’s cover which reads ‘Extraordinary’ – bet Bloomsbury were please with that one!

  1. You will know the one I turn to for a reliable good read for sure, Susan Hill. I just love what she is capable of packing into a novella. Most recently A Kind Man, The Beacon and In The Springtime of the Year, her literary works perhaps more so than the so called ghost stories, though they are great stories too.

    I used to always hang out for Niall Williams new reads, but he lost me for a while, though I think he may have refound his form with this latest History of Rain which I have still to read.

    For American authors, I know I love to read any upcoming Barbara Kingsolver without hesitation. I am still discovering excellent American authors, thanks to some well-read friends who are always recommending authors I’ve not been exposed to before, particularly creative non-fiction authors like Terry Tempest Williams and Rebecca Solnit; Kathleen Jamie writes similarly in their vein, although she is perhaps more true to nature writing. Oh, there are so many still to discover, includingSue Miller!

    1. Excellent list, Claire! Thank you. Terry Tempest-Williams is a new name for me – must seek her work out.

      1. I’ve only read one of hers so far, her most recent work ‘When Women Were Birds’ which was fascinating and a beautiful work to behold with its opening blank pages, however she is well known for ‘Refuge’ among others.

  2. I’ve read one Sue Miller, While I Was Gone. Though it was years ago now and I can’t remember a thing about it.

    My reliably good reads are Anne Tyler (as Claire’s already said), Margaret Atwood, Sarah Hall, Helen Dunmore, Jojo Moyes, Marian Keyes. Nothing you won’t have come across there.

    1. That’s a nicely well rounded list, Naomi. Me, too on While I was Gone, although that seems to be an all too regular accurence for me!

  3. Pingback: Dead Romantic – Ruth Saberton | The Writes of Woman

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