Sunburn by Laura Lippman
Sunburn opens with a thrirty-something man, Adam Bosk, observing a thirty-something woman, Polly Costello, in a roadside restaurant in the small town of Belleville, Delaware. She’s come from the beach, forty or so minutes to the east, and her sunburnt shoulders are starting to peel. Her observer wonders if he should make a move, introduce himself, strike up a conversation.
She wonders too, as he takes a seat two stools down at the bar. She doesn’t know he’s followed her from the beach, where she walked out–without warning, and forever–on her husband and child. Her observer has been told to get close to her, and has been warned: not too close.
On this day, their first direct encounter, he decides to back off. He leaves without a word. She is partially relieved, but still intrigued. Who is he?
The bigger question, and the one the book spends a lot of time answering is, Who is she? How did she end up in this little nowhere town? Where did she come from, and where is she going?
And is she really sitting on a big stash of money, like the man who hired Adam Bosk to follow her believes?
Polly Costello is a femme fatale written from a woman’s perspective. The traditional siren in American noir is a projection of male fantasies and fears, a woman guided by the fundamental desires of greed and lust, promising both fulfillment and ruin.
Polly Costello appears to fit this pattern, though there’s more to her–a lot more. If she happens to appeal to men, her allure is the by-product of a difficult life, during much of which her goal has simply been to survive to the next day, the next hour, the next minute. At one point, Adam notes “the touching smallness of her dreams.” The person whose circumstances don’t permit them to think past a tomorrow that may not come cannot afford to have dreams.
Polly is tough, smart, guarded and calculating. She measures the threat and opportunity posed by everyone around her and molds her behavior to avoid being trapped, to make it to the next day with hope and opportunity still intact. Part of her allure comes from the air of mystery every guarded person generates. A bigger part comes from the vitality of a spirit that feels in every moment the impending death and ruin to which it refuses to succumb.
Adam falls for her, and she for him, and in their bottomless passion and wariness, each one knows they’re lying about who they are, and neither trusts the other. Adam is an ethical and deeply conscientious man. He knows he’s walking a fine line in having an affair with the woman he’s been assigned to follow. Polly, after two disastrous marriages, trusts no one, but understands that she’s hit that rarest of finds, a truly good person who brings both emotional and erotic intensity.
Both had other plans, and both are now stuck in a place they never thought they’d be, unsure what to do and where to go next. Don’t worry. There’s nothing sappy or sentimental in their romance. The relationship sticks to the the traditional noir pattern of doubt, desire, danger and potential ruin.
Adam’s employer has told him many disturbing things about Polly. All of them are believable, but neither Adam nor the reader can guess which ones are true.
Lippman delves deep into her character to show us a fully relatable thought process and the life that shaped it. The more we know of Polly, the more we see she is unknowable. We can never guess what she’ll do next. We find ourselves, like Adam, speculating. She surprises us again and again, though nothing she does is out of character.
The true power of this book lies in Lippman’s writing, in what she chooses to tell us and how. A famous Hollywood director once said that all mysteries and suspense stories use the same devices and patterns, but in the best ones, you’re so engrossed in the telling, you don’t see them. Sunburn is one of the best. Fully engrossing, with deep, powerful, insightful writing.
In the blurb on the cover of one edition, the Washington Post says of Lippman, “She’s one of the best novelists around, period.” After reading this book, I have to agree with that. I’m repeatedly disappointed by contemporary mysteries and thrillers because the writing is so consistently bad. Authors aim low, write shallow or stupid or unbelievable characters, throw in obvious plot devices or impossible twists, and assume their readers will put up with anything. I get two chapters into a book that reviewers across the country proclaim to be a must-read only to find it’s a can’t read because the author can’t write.
Lippman, who actually writes for adults, is a great discovery, like Margaret Millar was a few years ago. Millar was married to the brilliant mystery writer Ross MacDonald. I’ve wondered how so much talent could exist in a single home. Lippman is married to David Simon, creator of HBO’s The Wire. I guess we have a repeat here.
Millar was a bestselling writer in her day. I think she outsold MacDonald, who is one of my favorite authors. And yet, through some injustice, she’s not as well remembered as him. Her books are hard to find. But they’re treasures, like this one which, as Stephen King said so succinctly, is “suspenseful as hell.”