Sunburn is a Pandora’s box of a novel – looking harmless on the exterior, but ultimately harboring complexity beyond measure within. It represents Laura Lippman’s homage to the masterpieces of noir, while never being anything less than authentic Lippman.
Sunburn is the story of Polly, a woman who commits the sin of willingly abandoning her family in order to find herself. Into Polly’s sphere comes Adam, a man with secrets of his own. The pas de duex that follows will keep each of them on their toes and will have readers holding their breath anticipating the moment when either Polly or Adam decides it is time for a solo jeté.
Despite Polly being a self-sufficient and independent woman, when she meets Adam in a run-down diner – where they will both soon have jobs – the two begin a passionate affair. Crime fiction readers will quickly suspect that everything that happens is not a coincidence; but who is conning whom, and more importantly, why?
Laura Lippman churns out text like gossamer threads cinched together by meticulous word choice, enviable punctuation, and near-perfect tone. Her characters converse in dialogue that feels authentic – as important to the plot as the exposition, maybe even more so. The resulting story is timely and timeless simultaneously; evoking nostalgia for the beginnings of noir, while seeming aptly contemporary despite the 1995 setting.
The focus of Sunburn is on our two main characters, but Lippman does occasionally introduce minor characters and points-of-view which intrude on and elucidate the main storyline in interesting ways. This method serves to add depth to the overall portrait of this specific time and place, but never distracts from the core story.
Laura Lippman has long been known for documenting the lives of Baltimore citizens, but in Sunburn she travels just a bit – to the eastern shore of Delaware. However, as in the rest of her oeuvre, setting plays a vital role in the success of this novel, becoming a character unto itself. Readers are presented with a sepia-tinged postcard portrait of this specific Delaware community, complete with condensation rings marring the fading surface of the ephemeral souvenir. In other words, the idyllic façade becomes tainted by the remnants of the human touch that was imposed upon the place.
The streamlined prose makes Sunburn one of Laura Lippman’s shortest novels. But brevity should not be confused with simplicity. This elegantly structured book slays with pinpoint accuracy, literally forcing the reader to sit up and take notice. Everything is so tightly woven that any more discussion of the plot would constitute spoilers. As Polly and Adam’s relationship spirals out of control, readers will feel the tension burning just under the surface.
Even though the reality television phenomenon was still a few years in the future, Polly and Adam could be thought of as the ultimate Survivor contestants: both of them struggling to outwit, outplay, and outlast the other – only in their case, the stakes may indeed be life and death. Readers will delight in their machinations, marveling at each twist Laura Lippman cleverly exposes along the way. Sunburn is my favorite Laura Lippman novel – and with her impressive body of work, that is certainly not something said lightly.
Disclaimer: A print galley of this title was provided to BOLO Books by the publisher. No review was promised and the above is an unbiased review of the novel.