The Arsonist

9780307594792_p0_v3_s260x420In The Arsonist, Sue Miller connects real fires set by an unknown pyromaniac to the fires that burn within two women – a mother and her daughter – as they struggle to be true to themselves and find home.  Drawn to their own work, Sylvia, a part-time college instructor, and her daughter, Frankie, an Aid worker in Africa, are reluctant to trade independence and self-worth for a shared life in a place neither wants to be – yet they both do – for awhile.  Love, of course, is the great motivator.

Frankie returns to her parent’s rural New England home, after years of working in Africa, trying to decide if she should return to her work or stay away from the country she has adopted.  Her father, a retired college professor, who is showing signs of dementia, continues on a steady decline throughout the story, while her mother, Sylvia, is bristling with the responsibilities she must suddenly assume, and restless over losing her own way in life as she followed the husband she no longer loves.

Frankie meets Bud, the small town newspaper owner/editor, who left the political maelstrom in Washington, D.C. during the Clinton presidency, to assume the more ordered and calm life of the country.  His somnolent reports of high school sports, births and deaths, teas and dances, are suddenly jolted by the fires that destroy the opulent summer houses in the town.  With each new fire, the normally sleepy town becomes restless, with townies pitted against the flatlanders.  The search for the arsonist carries the plot, yet Miller’s observations of human nature are the real story.

Eventually, the arsonist is caught – perhaps.  And, by the end, all the characters’ personal journeys are resolved – somewhat.  The ending might not fit with some readers’ expectations of self-realization for the characters, but I could relate to the unsettled feelings that seemed more realistic than a pat resolution.  Miller leaves the reader wondering about the concept of home.

Read a reviews of another Sue Miller book:   The Lake Shore Limited

 

State of Wonder and Heart of Darkness

A local book club’s pick of Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder led me to rereading Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The similarities are hard to miss: the menacing jungle (Africa for Conrad, Brazil for Patchett); the main character who manipulates the ignorant natives ( Kurtz vs Dr. Swenson); the ruthless, greedy corporation willing to destroy a way of life in the name of progress (ivory merchants in Africa; pharmaceutical companies in Brazil).

Both authors use brutal realism, with Patchett offering some respite in romance, while Conrad mires in the worst of humanity. Both use their talents for phrasing to capture the reader.

“Marina brushed her hand across the back of her neck and dislodged something with a hard shell. She had learned in time to brush instead of slap as slapping only served to pump the entire contents of the insect which was doubtlessly already burrowed into the skin with some entomological protuberance, straight into the bloodstream.”  Patchett, State of Wonder

“I tried to break the spell–the heavy, mute spell of the wilderness–that seemed to draw him to its pitiless breast by the awakening of forgotten and brutal instincts, by the memory of gratified and monstrous passions. This alone, I was convinced, had driven him out to the edge of the forest, to the bush, towards the gleam of fires, the throb of drums, the drone of weird incantations; this alone had beguiled his unlawful soul beyond the bounds of permitted aspirations.”
Conrad, Heart of Darkness

Conrad wrote his cautionary tale over 100 years ago (1903). Not much has changed it seems, just the players and the place, continuing the universal themes of greed and ethics.

If you haven’t yet read State of Wonder, the review here might tempt you. The classic Heart of Darkness is available free online.