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

 

from Ann Beattie’s Imagination – Mrs. Pat Nixon

A frequent contributor to The New Yorker, with her own collection of short stories making the best seller list (see the review below), Ann Beattie has imagined Pat Nixon’s life in a fictionalized version of the former first lady’s life and thoughts – Mrs. Nixon: A Novelist Imagines a Life – to be published this month.  Not the first time a First Lady has recently been subjected to conjecture:  Laura Bush in Curtis Sittenfeld’s An American Wife, Hilary Clinton in Sue Miller’s The Senator’s Wife.  Monica Ali even resurrected Princess Diana with a new life in Untold Story.

In her article for the New York Times, Me and Mrs. Nixon, Beattie offers her rationale for creating her own scrutiny of Richard Nixon’s wife – a seeming paragon of old-fashioned values, married to a man with no values.  What must have been going on in her head?  How did she manage to fade so effectively into the background – even behind the intensity of her daughters?

Beattie offered a taste of what to expect in her recent excerpt in The New Yorker – Starlight.  The book might be fun to read, but, like others in this genre, it could be hard to remember it’s fiction.

  • Read the review of Ann Beattie – the New Yorker Storieshere

First Sentences from New Books Now in Paperback

If you missed them when they first came out, here are three of my favorites now in paperback.  Does the first sentence draw you in?

Lloyd shoves off the bedcovers and hurries to the front door in white underwear and black socks.

From The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman; check the review here

Major Pettigrew was still upset about the phone call from his brother’s wife and so he answered the door without thinking.

From Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson; check the review here

 Because it was still afternoon, because she was in a strange room, because she was napping rather than sleeping (I’ll just lie down for a bit and see what happens,” she’d told Pierce) – because of all this, she was aware of herself as she dreamed, at some level conscious of working to subvert the dream she was having, to make it come out another way, different from the way it seemed to be headed.

From The Lake Shore Limited by Sue Miller; check the review here