Burning Down the House: “The Arsonist”, by Sue Miller

I really wanted to like this book, because I’ve enjoyed Sue Miller’s stuff in the past. But…yuck, this one left me with a bad taste in my mouth. Three stars for decent writing, two for the plot.

And it’s hard to say why, except that the soul-searching (if that’s what you’d call it) of Frankie, the female protagonist reminded me of “Eat Pray Love” which I hated so much I couldn’t get through it. WHY IS SHE SO RESTLESS/MALCONTENT/HOLLOW? From what I can see, she’s perfectly suited for a job (aid worker in Africa) that supplies her with a constant flow of transient colleagues (doctors, nurses, etc.) to satisfy her sex drive without compromising her aversion to commitment.

But she comes “home” to her parents’ summer place in New Hampshire, where her folks have moved, too, in their retirement. Her mother is dealing with her father’s decline into dementia, and an arsonist is torching the homes of the rich and WASPy summer visitors, and a recently arrived editor of the local newspaper is cosmopolitan enough (he’s from DC) to be an interesting conversationalist and good-looking enough (he’s tall, dark, and handsome) to pique her physical interest.

Everybody’s flawed. Frankie’s a rolling stone who’s 43 and unmarried and has no professional or personal direction. Her mother, Sylvia, doesn’t love her husband (but she’ll do her duty to him as he slowly loses his mind and himself because she doesn’t love him and she owes it to him — make sense? Didn’t to me either). The newspaper editor is a “womanizer” in the eyes of the town and has two failed marriages behind him to boot. The police chief is fat and sloppy (ever notice how fat people are always sloppy? Lazy writing, stereotypes are) and sneaky and lives in his cruiser, which is filled with food wrappers and debris. The people who are less flawed (or maybe they are, because we aren’t given to know) are stock small-town characters, the gossipy town employee, the patrician summer people, the competent but reticent fire chief…I’m bored just writing this down.

So the arsonist plot underlies everything and points up the class differences between the year-rounders and the summer visitors. I don’t know what else it’s supposed to do except give Frankie and the newspaper editor something in common to fret over.

My biggest gripe might be the pace. LORD is it glacial or what? It takes ages for nothing much to happen. Then we skip over weeks of the early days of Frankie’s and the editor’s love affair…might have been nice to see more of their interactions, because then maybe the end might not have seemed like such shorthand for a wrap-up.

Anyway, not one of my faves. I’d heard such good things about this book in reviews that I was really excited when I found it on the shelf at the library. Sadly, that enthusiasm was misplaced.


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