I read a lot of novels in the alternative universe where I write reviews for a publishing trade magazine. I try to read as objectively as possible to judge if the author’s language, characters and plot come together in a way that moves, challenges and/or entertains.
Once in a while a novel or story comes along that I can’t help connecting to on a more personal level, and that is definitely the case with Sue Miller’s new novel The Arsonist. The novel is about a small New England town where tensions between summer and year-round residents intensify when a series of suspicious house fires occur. The ostensible heroine is Frankie, a single woman in her forties returning home to stay with her parents at their summer place, and the novel largely revolves around her ambivalent romance with the local newspaper editor covering the fires.
But for me the central characters were the woman’s parents, the long-married Sylvia and Alfie. Though madly in love in the beginning of their relationship Sylvia has become increasingly disillusioned with Alfie, a self-important academic. Frankie has always adored her father and always been piqued by what she sees as Sylvia’s “only-slightly-veiled contempt, or disdain.” The reader is viewing Sylvia and Alfie through Frankie’s eyes, at least at first, and to Sylvia Alfie seems unchanged; but even early on my antennae went up—Sylvia’s protective yet resentful attitude to her husband and his “projects” seemed uncomfortably familiar.
And sure enough, it’s not long before Alfie gets lost driving home along long familiar roads and Sylvia has to admit, to herself at least, that Alfie is “failing, the thing they’d both been aware of in less critical moments, that they’d talked about, gingerly, over and over.” What makes the moment disturbing is not simply that Alfie has forgotten, but that he so quickly turns helpless and passively willing to let Sylvia take over.
I was hooked.
From here until I put the novel down, I found myself skimming through the descriptions of the fires, only marginally interested in the who-done-it mystery or the romantic moments between Frankie and her good-natured new beau. What I cared about with increasing anxiety was Alfie’s gradual but escalating loss of mental capacity and how Sylvia, a highly competent, self-aware woman still young enough to maintain her fully active life, reacted.
There is no sugarcoating or sentimentality here, and no easy solution. Without giving away more of the plot, I promise that Sue Miller captures exactly the reality of being the spouse (or child in Frankie’s case) of someone with Early Alzheimer’s. The guilt, the anger, the protectiveness, the moments of affection and the moments of furious impatience. I didn’t simply identify with Sylvia; I felt as if Miller had excavated my own psyche. Sylvia may be a fictional character, but she is me.