I’ve said this before — our best book club selections are books in which half the members like the book and the other half don’t. It fills our discussions with so much depth and liveliness. This past week we met to talk about The Arsonist by Sue Miller and our discussion was excellent.
The Arsonist is a story about a “summer” family in a small New Hampshire town. It’s the classic conflict between the full-time residents and those who only reside there in the summer. When an unknown arsonist begins setting fires, one by one, to the homes of the summer residents, it upsets the whole community.
The Rowley family has owned the house and all it’s property for a very long time. Sylvia Rowley’s family lived there for decades. She inherited the place, but has only spent summers there. But now Sylvia and her husband are no longer just summer people. They have retired to the property. Does that move them over to the full-time side?
The story really takes off when their daughter Frankie comes homer from Africa where she has been working for an aid organization for fifteen years. Frankie is exhausted and burnt out. She didn’t feel as if she belonged in Africa and would like to figure out where she does belong. She doesn’t feel she fits in at her parent’s home. What does home feel like?
One bright spot for Frankie is Bud. He is a long-time journalist/writer who has always longed for old-fashioned newspapering. He took a chance and is now the owner of the small town newspaper. It’s pretty much a one-man shop with help from volunteers. Bud hasn’t been lucky when it comes to relationships, but he really is one of the nice guys. He quickly falls for Frankie, but tries to take it slow.
One thing Sue Miller is good at is analyzing relationships. All her novels touch on that concept in one way or another. I still remember The Senator’s Wife and its diagnosis of young marriage vs. a long-term marriage. In The Arsonist we also look at a long-term marriage. There are so many issues in the marriage of Frankie’s parents. It’s not a good example for someone contemplating a long-term relationship.
I was disappointed in two things in this book. One is that I felt that Sue Miller just dropped the issue of summer residents vs. year-round residents. The issue of belonging to a community could have, should have, been covered better. There were plenty of examples but no follow through. I was also disappointed in the resolution of the arsonist. It was never established definitively who that was and the motives. That part of the book just ended.
In spite of what I just said, I actually liked the story and the main characters were well drawn. It kept my interest all the way through. I was surprised that so many book club members didn’t like the novel. But, to tell you the truth, I’m glad they did as it made me think deeper about various aspects of the story. That is one of the benefits of belonging to a book club.
If you need a book club selection and you prefer books with mixed reactions, then pick The Arsonist.