Wednesday, November 18, 2009

24. An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England
by Brock Clarke

This book was recommended to me by Fat Bridesmaid, who also recommended In the Woods. I frickin' loved In The Woods, so I was excited to read this quirkily named mystery (which is kind of hard to type, by the way).

"It's probably enough to say that in the Massachusett Mt. Rushmore of big gruesome tragedy, there are the Kennedys, and Lizzie Borden and her ax, and the burningwitches at Salem, and then there's me."

An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England is the story of Sam Pulsifer, accidental arsonist of the Emily Dickinson house, a beloved tourist attraction in his hometown of Amherst. Sam has served his time and now lives with his wife and two children, who are completely unaware of his past. He has no contact with his parents, who were ostracized after his crime, until the day that Thomas Coleman, whose parents died in the Dickinson house fire, confronts Sam and demands an apology. Coleman sets out to ruin Sam's life when he doesn't get the reaction he feels he's entitled to, and Sam's wife kicks him out when Coleman tells her that Sam is having an affair. With nowhere else to go, Sam returns to his parents' home in Amherst and reconnects with his parents. A string of suspicious fires at local writers' homes leads the local police to investigate Sam, who then sets out to solve the mystery and clear his name.

What I liked about this book was that there was a lot more to it than I expected. I thought it would be a straightforward mystery about the arsons, but the deeper mystery that Sam pursues is that of his family history. There's a lot that he doesn't know about his parents and their relationship, and it was interesting to see events unfold and clarify Sam's lingering questions. The book is written in the first person, and Sam is telling us his story after the fact. This form of story-telling really appeals to me for some reason, I love the foreshadowing and the "if I'd known then..." type of comments sprinkled throughout. I also liked how the writing drew me in, and I wanted to know what was going to happen next.

That being said, I didn't whole-heartedly love the book. It was supposed to be eccentric or quirky, but I didn't quite relate to it so it just came off as weird. And a lot of it was sad, which I wasn't in the mood for. Maybe if I had read it at another time, I wouldn't have minded the sad parts, but I got up from reading it feeling a little bummed out. And while I liked the fact that Sam was discovering the truth about his parents' relationships, I did not get why his mother told him scary stories about the Emily Dickinson house after his father left them. It just seemed so weird and random to make up scary stories about this tourist attraction and tell them to a young boy after his father left to go find himself. I couldn't quite place myself in the characters' shoes, and that affected my enjoyment of the book.

No comments: