THE ARSONIST by Sue Miller is full of promise, both story-wise and character-wise. But does it deliver?
Sylvia and Alfie have recently retired to their farmhouse in a small rural community in New England. They’ve been married seemingly forever, and now it’s time for them to relax and take a new direction. They have two grown daughters. Frankie has been living and working in Kenya for fifteen years now. But she’s burnt out and coming back to the farm to sort it all out. Liz is leading a more traditional existence and has married and has children. She’s living nearby.
The night that Frankie arrives home the fires begin. They are always at homes of the “summer” people. Arson is quickly suspected and the small town is up in arms, separating the town into summer and year-round people. The fires escalate and everyone is worried.
Bud is the owner of the local newspaper. He removed himself from the big city and is using his journalism background to do most of the reporting and almost all of the distributing. He and Frankie meet and begin to bond.
The real story here is not the fires, or Frankie, it’s what’s going on between Sylvia and Alfie. You see, Alfie is not himself. His memory is lapsing. Sylvia’s been keeping it to herself. But while the girls are present Alfie shows his true self to all involved. And now we know he is in the midst of Alzheimers disease. And the story takes a whole different turn.
Alzheimer’s is a horrendous disease that drastically and horribly affects the lives of not only the victim, but the family members, and loved ones. The guilt, the anger, and the helplessness, as the decent into mindlessness takes over. In this case it is Sylvia who feels guilt and horror. Miller has portrayed this feeling in a blunt but caring way. I know people who are dealing with this in their families. It is awful. There are really no words to describe it. And what I mostly see is that this disease seems to strike people who have had the sharpest of minds. Such a shame; a crime really. Sad for all involved.
All in all, I liked this novel. But I do believe it is a bit too predictable. The writing is great, as always with Miller. The story is unique in itself. And the timing is good. But something is lacking, something I can not quite put my finger on.
Having said all that, I would recommend the novel because I believe there is a message here for everyone. And because I really liked the story.
My review copy came from Knopf. As always, I say thank you so much!