Tag Archives: sue miller

THE ARSONIST by Sue Miller

I have read a lot of Sue Miller books. (Here are a few.) I’ve liked quite a few of them, too, so I was excited to pick up her latest book, The Arsonist, at BEA, and was also lucky to land a review copy of the audiobook version.

The Arsonist takes place in New Hampshire post-9/11. It’s summer, and the town of Pomeroy is soon to play host to the “flatlanders” who spend three months of the year at their summer homes, during which they coexist mostly peacefully with the full-time New Hampshire residents of the town. But just as the summer residents start descending, those summer homes start going up in flames, putting everyone on edge and jumpstarting a police investigation. The Arsonist is also about Frankie Rawley, an expat who has returned to the U.S. after many years living in Africa doing hunger aid work. She is staying with her parents, Sylvie and Alfie Rawley, who have retired to Pomeroy after years in academia. Frankie’s return to the U.S. and to her parents’ home coincides with the first fire.

Miller weaves these two plots – first, the tension in Pomeroy caused by the arsons and the cleave between summer and full-time residents, and second, Frankie’s disorientation upon returning to the U.S. and her romance with a local newspaperman named Bud,  a transplant to New Hampshire from Washington, DC – skillfully throughout the novel. The fires heat up  literally, while Frankie and Bud’s romance heats up figuratively. Frankie, though, after years of “temporizing” in Africa with a shifting cast of colleagues, is incapable to committing emotionally, to a person or to a place. She’s sort of floating through her life, insulated from emotion, with no real roots anywhere, which makes her romance with Bud a fragile one.

I found The Arsonist, like Frankie, to be a little cold. I had trouble feeling invested in either Frankie or Pomeroy. I was curious to know who set the fires, and whether Frankie and Bud would develop into anything, but I didn’t care that much. A subplot involving Alfie’s retreat into Alzheimer’s was sad but ultimately too clinical for me. These sturdy, unemotional New Englanders were too restrained, too controlled for me to feel emotionally connected to The Arsonist.

I was a bit disappointed by the book given how much I’ve enjoyed Miller’s other works.

I listened to The Arsonist on audio. It was narrated by Miller herself, and I thought she did a pretty good job with it. I always appreciate an author narration, because you know you’re hearing the characters as they were intended. But I felt like Miller was overly enamored of Frankie – she performed Frankie in this earnest, sympathetic voice that made me even more irritated with the character. I wonder if I would have felt that way if I had read the book instead of listening to it.

A decent read, but not my favorite by this author.

BEA 2014 Wrap-Up

I spent three glorious days in NY last week for Book Expo America 2014 (BEA).

This year, I focused on learning about new books (mostly fiction) at a number of panels held over the course of Thursday and Friday, as well as on obtaining copies of a select few galleys. I discovered some unknown authors by wandering the floor and checking out galley stacks and author signings. I also attended some fun off-campus events, such as the HarperCollins 2014 Fall Preview and Blogger Party, the Bloggers Recommend happy hour, and the annual audiobook narrator-blogger lunch (which I LOVE going to – more on that later this week).

Here are some of my impressions of BEA 2014, as well as some photos:

1. There are a LOT of exciting books coming out in the next few months. I picked up galleys from a lot of big-name authors that I have enjoyed in the past – Sue Miller, Jane Smiley, Ann Hood – and also heard some very passionate editors rave about upcoming books from new authors. These new authors are edgy and have written about difficult topics, which I found encouraging. It shows that fiction is alive and innovating. 

2. Celebrity memoirs are as big as ever. There were huge lines for author signings by such stars as Neil Patrick Harris (who wasn’t even signing a book!), Angelica Huston, and Billy Idol, not to mention the ticketed author events that also featured celebrities. (I didn’t wait in these lines.) I also attended a panel discussion with Jonathan Tropper, who adapted his novel This Is Where I Leave You for the big screen, along with the movie’s director Shawn Levy and stars Tina Fey and Jason Bateman. It was a huge event, with hundreds of people turning out. Tropper spent a lot of time talking about the fascinating process of adapting a novel into a screenplay.

3. But the really long lines were for YA authors. The longest line I saw during BEA was for a signing by Lois Lowry. RJ Palacio also had a huge line for a signed tote bag. There were many other lines for authors I’ve never heard of, and I presume that most of them were YA.

4. E-readers might be big, but galleys moved quickly. I saw stacks of books one minute that were gone 15 minutes later.

5. Big news for audiobooks: a new format that features MP3 files and that allows a whole book to be saved onto a single disc. This will make audiobook production cheaper and faster, which should benefit the publishing industry and listeners alike.

6. Readers – whether they are bloggers, librarians, educators, or industry insiders – are as passionate as ever. Everyone seemed very excited to be at BEA, and were enthusiastic about the authors they interacted with and the books they collected.

And now the pics!

Signed copies:

photo 1Unsigned fiction(mostly):

photo 2


Books from the HarperCollins 2014 Fall preview and blogger party:

photo 3Books I picked up for friends and other odds and ends:

photo 4And books for my kids:

photo 5

Here are some authors who signed my books:

Jane Smiley:

photo 1 (5)


Ann Hood:

photo 2 copy

Sue Miller:

photo 5 copy

BJ Novak:

photo 3 (1)

Jeff Kinney:

photo 1 copy

RJ Palacio:

photo 4 copy

I am already excited for next year!


Lakeshore Sue Miller is one of those authors where you know what kind of book you’re going to get before you open the first page: lots of character and relationship analysis; sharp, descriptive writing; and realistic if not always memorable plots. The Lake Shore Limited is no exception.

The Lake Shore Limited is told from 4 characters’ point of view: Leslie, a Vermont woman approaching 60 who lost her beloved younger brother Gus on 9/11 when his plane crashed into the WTC; Billy, Gus’s girlfriend at the time, who has written a play that’s basically about 9/11; Rafe, one of the actors in the play; and Sam, an old friend of Leslie who she tries to set up with Billy. The chapters alternate among these four interconnected characters, all of whom interact on opening night of Billy’s play in Boston. Each character gets one long chapter and then a shorter, followup chapter.

The Lake Shore Limited is really a book about ambivalence. There are three characters who experience deep ambivalence about the loss of their partners – conflicting feelings of guilt, sadness, and relief. Billy’s play is about her own complicated feelings on 9/11, as she wasn’t in love with Gus and had planned to leave him before she lost him in that terrible, violent way. Rafe, who plays the character in the play that parallels Billy, has a wife with a degenerative disease and lives every day playing the role of dutiful caretaker husband while his mind cycles through feelings of guilt, sadness and thoughts about other women. And Sam, who lost his own wife to cancer many years earlier, finds his own emotions from that time dredged up when he goes to see the play. Leslie, it seems, is the purest of heart, but the most tied to the past and the loss of her brother.

I enjoyed The Lake Shore Limited, and appreciated as always Miller’s ability to create realistic and flawed, yet sympathetic, characters that act like people in real life. I also liked that the people in this book were between 45 and 60 (perhaps because it didn’t make me feel old!). I listened to this one on audio, and it was performed by Sue Miller herself, which I loved. (I always enjoy author narration because I trust the inflections and interpretations of tone more than an actor’s.) She’s a very good narrator. I wasn’t crazy about her depiction of Billy, though, a prickly character who got a breezy treatment from Miller that I didn’t think she deserved.

This was just a good vs. a great read for me, though. First, these characters lacked passion. Billy, in particular, was very dispassionate and almost mechanical about her attractions and partnerships. She held back emotionally from the men with which she got involved, which ultimately made the relationships she did form unrealistic. I also wasn’t convinced of Sam’s attractions either to Leslie or to Billy – Miller reiterated many times how he felt, but it never really felt that convincing to me. I wanted these characters to feel that “can’t live without you” passion that at least characterizes early relationships; instead, everything felt a little tepid.

The most successful character was Rafe. His story was heartbreaking (though he too felt ambivalence toward his wife even before her diagnosis) and I thought Miller did an excellent job with him.

There’s a LOT of detail and backstory in this book, and kind of like Courntey Sullivan’s Maine, not a whole lot of action. That was fine with me.

Overall, I liked this one. Listening to it on audio drew the reading experience out for a long time – I wonder if I’d have found it a little snappier if I’d read it instead (it’s not that long). I was kind of glad to finish it, even though I liked it.

(Audio was from the library and paper version from a used book sale. No review copies here, FTC.)


Sue Miller’s THE LAKE SHORE LIMITED and Book Blogger Con

A few links of interest today…

The first is an article on Shelf Awareness about the upcoming Book Blogger Convention, which is taking place the day after Book Expo America in NY at the end of May. The article talks about how valuable book blogs are to publishers, as well as a survey recently undertaken by Rebecca of The Book Lady's Blog that seeks to quantify the influence of book bloggers. I am really looking forward to Book Blogger Con, so that I can see my book blogger friends and meet some new ones. I am also participating in a blogger/marketing panel at the conference.

The second is this Washington Post review of Sue Miller's new book, The Lake Shore Limited. If you're a fan of Sue Miller… this one has been getting good reviews. The Post says The Lake Shore Limited "may be the closest thing we'll get to a [Henry James-esque] response to 9/11: no drama, no crisis, barely any action at all — just a deeply affecting examination of the thoughts and feelings of four people still moving in the shadow of that tragedy." I am generally a big fan of Sue Miller's books, though I found The Senator's Wife (reviewed here) disappointing. I am definitely willing to give her another chance on this one.


Before I get to the review, I must thank EDIWTB readers for nominating this blog for Book Blogger Appreciation Week. I am thrilled and flattered to say that I got six nominations: Best Literary Fiction Blog, Best General Review Blog, Best Reviews, Best Writing, Best Book Club Blog, and Best Publishing/Industry Blog. I can't thank you enough for taking the time to go to the BBAW site and vote for me, and for including me in so many categories! I actually withdrew my nomination from the Publishing/Industry category, because I really don't write about the industry that often. I am focusing instead on the other five. I have to send in five blog posts for each category, which will be judged and scored. The blogs with the top five scores in each category will be on the shortlist for voting, which happens in September. So I am in the process of choosing posts and will send in my five lists of posts by midnight tomorrow to be considered. Thank you again for your support!

And now, to the review.

Miller Vacation read #4 was The Senator's Wife, by Sue Miller. This is maybe the fifth Sue Miller novel I have read, the others being For Love,  Family Pictures, The Good Mother, and Lost in the Forest (reviewed here). The Senator's Wife is about two women who live next door to each other in a Boston suburb - Delia, the wife of a former U.S. senator named Tom, and Meri, a newly married, newly pregnant woman in her late thirties who has recently moved to the town. Neither woman is in an ideal situation – Delia, who is in her 70s, is married to Tom in name only. After a series of affairs early in their marriage, Delia refused to live with him, but she also refused to leave him. Despite all of his faults - faithlessness, self-centeredness, addiction to attention – Delia loves him, and can't cut her ties to him. So she resorts to seeing him a few times a year, and splitting time alone between Massachusetts and an apartment in Paris.

Meri loves her husband Nathan, a college professor, but she has deep ambivalence toward the trappings of marriage and commitment. She is relatively detached from the new house she and Nathan move in to at the beginning of the book, and when she gets pregnant, she is similarly emotionally distant from the pregnancy and, ultimately, the baby, at least initially. The Senator's Wife is ultimately about the relationship that develops between Meri and Delia, and how these two women in different stages of life both depend on and alienate each other. 

I must confess – this is my least favorite Sue Miller novel. First, I found it a bit boring. She includes so much description in each scene that I kept thinking Something Dramatic Was Going To Happen, only to learn that all that was happening was a lot of description. Second, I found some of Meri's actions to be unrealistically childish and selfish. I understand that Miller needed to introduce some tension to move the plot forward, but I think she could have accomplished that without making Meri so unlikable. Delia was frustrating for her own reasons, but Miller did a better job of justifying, or at least explaining, her motivations. Finally, the ending is surprising. I won't spoil the book by revealing what happens, but I didn't see it coming. And while it did force the book into a tidy closure, it wasn't particularly satisfying.

I am usually a big fan of Sue MIller. I think she is a master of domestic fiction, and I have always liked her work. This book was just not my favorite. I may be in the minority on this one – there are plenty of people who enjoyed this book. Here are some links:

There's No Such Thing As A God-Forsaken Town: "This author is great at writing about situations that are full of ambiguity, situations that make the reader feel uncomfortable. I guess her books are the opposite of escapist fiction…. All the characters are vividly drawn, and all are deeply flawed. Even though I knew something dreadful was ahead, I couldn't stop reading."

Blogcritics: "Beautifully written and expertly plotted as all Miller’s novels are, the book is an engaging and even enthralling read, as the author takes us deep into the lives of two very different women who become friends by chance."

The Book Lady's Blog: "Women young and old, married and single, and of all walks of life will relate to and be drawn into this phenomenal novel. The Senator’s Wife is a discussion starter, a call to dialogue between women, and proof of just what can happen when we are willing to explore the truth about our emotions and our experiences in all of their messiness and complexity. Miller knows that relationships are not clean and simple, and in allowing her characters the freedom to grapple with important and difficult questions about their lives, she encourages us to do the same."


Miller Lost in the Forest, by Sue Miller, is classic domestic fiction. It's the story of a family in Northern California's wine country – Eva, her ex-husband Mark, their daughters Emily and Daisy, and her son Theo by her second husband John. When the book opens, John has just been killed in a car accident. The book follows the rest of the family after John's death, exploring how they cope with his absence and how their relationships with each other change over time.

I'm a fan of Sue Miller. I love literary dissection of family relationships, and this book doesn't disappoint. The characters are complicated and genuine, and Miller expertly relays everyday events in their lives which, while seemingly mundane, are actually quite pivotal. I've heard before that writers should "show, don't tell", and I think Miller is more on the "tell" side of the spectrum; she spends a lot of time explaining how the characters feel and think about each other. Some might see that as a criticism, but I liked it and appreciated her insights. Maybe I am a lazy reader, but it aided my overall understanding of the characters and the book.

I also liked the setting. I am used to Sue Miller's books being set outside Boston (where she lives), and it was a refreshing change to read about a family living in wine country. I used to live in San Francisco and visited that area a number of times, so I could picture the scenery and smell the fragrant, Northern California air and the dry vineyards.

I had a problem with one plot element. There is an inappropriate (and most likely illegal) sexual relationship that takes place and ends basically without consequence. This bothered me. As a parent, I was surprised that Miller would have let the instigator off the hook, at least legally and socially. (He doesn't escape blame in his partner's therapy sessions).

Also, the last chapter fast-forwards about 15 years and checks back in with this family. It's a little bit too neat of a wrap-up, but I did enjoy learning what had happened to everyone.

I'd recommend this book. I enjoyed it a lot, and these characters will stay with me for a long time.  Another good one from Sue Miller.