Sunburn by Laura Lippman

Originally published in 2018

They meet at a local tavern in the small town of Belleville, Delaware. Polly is set on heading west. Adam says he’s also passing through. Yet she stays and he stays—drawn to this mysterious redhead whose quiet stillness both unnerves and excites him. Over the course of a punishing summer, Polly and Adam abandon themselves to a steamy, inexorable affair. Still, each holds something back from the other—dangerous, even lethal, secrets.

Then someone dies. Was it an accident, or part of a plan? By now, Adam and Polly are so ensnared in each other’s lives and lies that neither one knows how to get away—or even if they want to. Is their love strong enough to withstand the truth, or will it ultimately destroy them?

Something—or someone—has to give.

Which one will it be?

There is a pivotal sequence quite early in Sunburn in which one of the main characters cooks the perfect grilled cheese sandwich for the other. It is striking because it marks the moment at which the two characters really begin to actively engage with each other and also because it does not involve exotic or expensive ingredients – it is a sandwich that uses familiar ingredients but it is elevated by the choices that chef makes in how each familiar ingredient is incorporated.

Lippman similarly draws on some very familiar ingredients in constructing Sunburn. The couple with secret agendas meeting in a diner after drifting into each others’ paths is straight out of the James M. Cain playbook, something Lippman clearly acknowledges at several points. Lippman’s originality and genius comes in the form of refining each of those familiar elements, respecting Cain’s achievements but then delivering something that feels even richer and deeper, particularly with regards the exploration of the mindset of her female protagonist Polly.

Polly, who also goes by the name Pauline, has arrived in the sleepy town of Belleville, Delaware after leaving her husband and young child during a short break at the beach. This is not an impulsive act but rather a carefully thought-out plan. Upon arriving she talks a local restaurant owner into taking her on as a waitress and she starts to befriend another new arrival in town, Adam.

We soon learn that Adam is not all he seems and that he knows more about Polly than she realizes. The chapters in the first half of the book alternate between these two characters’ perspectives, exploring the events that brought them to Belleville and the connection the pair form. Both have agendas and recognize that they are keeping secrets from each other but there is a powerful attraction between the two that causes each character to give up some of their control and brings them closer and closer to each other.

The brilliance in the situation Lippman creates is that she establishes a relationship between the two built upon a foundation of lies and using one another but the characters are themselves aware of this to at least some extent. This means that both characters will second guess each other, never being entirely sure if they are being played themselves. This generates enormous tension at points, particularly in the later half of the novel in which an apparently accidental death is being investigated. At the same time, the attraction between the pair feels quite evident, making it seem all the more compelling. The only question is to what extent each is being sincere in pursuing that relationship.

As compelling as this situation is however, the novel would not work were it not for the thoughtful and at times ambiguous characterizations of Adam and Polly. Although we are privy to many of their thoughts, we are not told everything about their backgrounds and previous decisions. As such we are only able to perceive events with the lens of what we know in that moment and the reader may well find their attitudes and judgments towards Polly in particular shift throughout the book as we gain more information and build up a broader picture of that character and their life.

Prior to reading this book I had heard about it from some people I know who read it for a book club and several expressed the opinion that Polly is an unlikeable character. While I do not share that experience, I can understand why some will find Polly a difficult character to love or like. For one thing, the choice she makes at the start of the novel to abandon her young daughter seems to go against most people’s understanding of maternal feelings ought to be and so may read as somewhat abhorrent behavior. And yet when you follow her actions it soon becomes clear that she cares deeply about what happens to that child and that the decision is not as simple and selfish as it initially appears. But just when you feel warmer, a new element is introduced that prompts you to doubt your reading of Polly all over again.

Personally I found this characterization to be both thoughtful and realistic, often reflecting the deep and troubling complexities of human behavior, and I was soon rooting for her to fix her life and find some semblance of happiness with Adam (even if, given this is written in a noir style, that seemed impossible).

Adam is also quite a complex character, though in his case the complexities come in the form of some moral compromises and dishonesty in the way he has approached Polly. There are times at which I felt he was exercising careful and thoughtful judgment and yet I could not escape the idea that he may sometimes be seeing what he wanted to see to justify the choices he was making.

Lippman’s depiction of life in a small and quiet town is done well and I think her story acknowledges some of the challenges involved with drifting into the type of place where everyone knows each other and their business. While there is not a huge cast of supporting characters, the ones that are provided seem distinct and dimensional, adding to the sense of place and also time (the book is, after all, a period piece set in the mid-90s). The one exception would be a character who appears in flashback sequences but while that characterization is entirely presented solely from one perspective, I think that was probably necessary to clearly establish their role in the story and to clarify how the reader should feel about them and their actions.

While the first half sets up the circumstances that bring these two characters together and into each other’s arms, the second deals with the fallout from a death. It is this second half, rather than the story trappings themselves, that most remind me of Cain’s work. In particular, I found myself reflecting on an idea he often returns to in his work, that a crime can threaten to undo a relationship by introducing suspicion and mistrust of each other, particularly when they are forced to rely upon one another. That brewing mistrust is one of my favorite parts of both The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity and Lippman proves just as good at credibly creating, sustaining and exploring those tensions. Adam and Polly are easily a match for, say, Frank and Cora.

If there is a disappointment, it comes for me in the final couple of chapters of the book. Now, I think thematically the story is wrapped up pretty perfectly and I liked that there is a moment of tension in that conclusion. Unfortunately I do not love that a key moment is not shown directly to us. While I could understand why the decision was reached to try and build up that sense of tension, it does mean that a key aspect of the story feels somewhat unresolved. Then again, other aspects of that conclusion feel thoughtful and powerful, seeming entirely earned and the final few pages in particular feel pretty gripping.

The Verdict: Played in the key of James M. Cain, Sunburn is a powerful and clever work in its own right with striking characterizations and a great premise.

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