I almost gave up on this contemporary noir novel by Laura Lippman after just a couple of pages because of passages like this, describing one of the main characters:

He’s a Ken doll kind of guy, if Ken had a great year-round tan. Tall and muscular with even features, pale eyes, dark hair. Women always assume Ken wants a Barbie, but he prefers his women thin and a little skittish.

I mean, what even does all that mean? My Ken doll did have a year-round tan, plenty of women do not assume Ken wants a Barbie, and how is Barbie not thin? I mean. And then two different characters in the space of  10 pages complain that the little restaurant where they meet should be the Heigh-Ho, not the High-Ho. And the lead female introduces herself as the “Pink Lady.” This is the kind of writing, attempting to be clever, but begging to be picked apart. It’s also, I think, meant to feel like a noir voice, with the use of unusual metaphors. But it doesn’t feel natural and drew too much attention to itself.

And then, when deciding whether to continue, I read a Washington Post review that summarized a lot (a lot) of the plot, a plot that relies heavily on secrets being revealed. But inertia and the fact that this was an easy read kept me going, and I ended up enjoying a lot of it, especially once I got through the first half, and new mysteries, not revealed in the WaPo review started to emerge.

Sunburn is set in a small Delaware town. Pauline has shown up there after leaving her husband and daughter. And Adam is a private detective, hired by someone from Pauline’s past for reasons that gradually become clear. The two end up working at the High-Ho, Pauline (Polly) as a waitress and Adam as a cook. And against both of their better judgment, they fall in love — maybe.

Lippman uses a third-person narrative voice that puts us in both characters’ heads, but it’s never clear if we’re getting all their thoughts. Both make some decisions that play against reader sympathy. Polly, for instance, has abandoned her daughter and seems unconcerned about it, yet when you’re in her head, seeing how miserable she was in her marriage and understanding more of her history, the decision makes sense. Adam is stringing along both Polly and his client, but his client seems like a creep and Polly may not be honest. So there are reasons. I still never quite bought their romance. They both seemed to be playing too many angles, Polly more so than Adam — Adam just seems easily taken in by women.

As events build toward what will certainly be a dramatic conclusion, the characters’ motivations get clearer in some areas and murkier in others. And the ending leaves a few questions about the choices they made and to what degree they were swept up in events and to what degree they engineered the events that occurred. It ended up being a pretty good read. I had a few reservations about a couple of crucial characters who ended up somewhat cartoon-like in their nastiness, but in a book like this, that’s not a major concern. The important element, the twisty and slow plot build, works well, and once I got into it, I had a good time with it.

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12 Responses to Sunburn

  1. I’ve usually found that Lippman gives the reader more than you think she is going to on first glance. If you feel like trying another I recommend ‘After I’m Gone’.

    • Teresa says:

      I’ll keep that one in mind. I read What the Dead Know ages and ages ago–on audio, I think–and I liked it fine but not enough to look for more. This was better.

  2. Elle says:

    It was a super beach read, this one, although like you, I’m not sure it stands up all that well once you start picking it apart. I did think it would make an excellent next step for people who liked Gone Girl; Polly’s ability to manipulate men, and obsession with it, echoed Amy’s in a way that few other authors can manage in their characters.

    • Teresa says:

      Yes, I agree that it’s a great follow-up to Gone Girl. Not quite as clever overall, but that ending took my breath away almost as much as GG.

      • Elle says:

        I thought Polly, as a character, functions as a way of exploring the way women can manipulate men in much the same way as GG’s Amy does – although you’re right, Sunburn’s not at the same level of absolutely fucking with your expectations.

  3. I enjoyed Sunburn for what it was and would definitely pick up more of her work.

  4. Rohan Maitzen says:

    I started this one recently and did give it up after a chapter or so; I might try it again, as you make it sound not bad and Dorian highly recommended it. It seemed very atmospheric but I just didn’t like the atmosphere, and I guess the bottom line for me is that noir is not my favorite genre.

    • Teresa says:

      I think I like noir, but I’ve watched more of it than I’ve read, so it’s hard to say. The style can turn to overwritten so quickly. The first chapters here were extremely rocky, but once I got used to the style, I didn’t mind it so much (and I think the writing improved once she settled into the story).

  5. Nicola says:

    I was put off reading this because the motif of a woman walking away from her family on the beach seems to have been directly lifted from my beloved Anne Tyler’s novel Ladder of Years. Both Baltimore writers, too!

  6. Nicola says:

    Yes, but Lippman has lifted the central motif from Ladder of Years and chooses it in this top ten of runaway mothers. Just kind of annoys me – but I won’t rant on your blog!

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