book review: sunburn

Sunburn by Laura Lippman
William Morrow, 290 pp.
Published February 20, 2018

One is playing a long game. But which one?

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 that begin to accumulate as autumn approaches, feeding the growing doubts they conceal.

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?

Sunburn has one of my favorite covers for a thriller in recent memory. Oftentimes dark and twisty stories have dark and twisty dust jacket artwork accompanying them; not that its a bad trend to follow, but in comparison Laura Lippman's newest novel practically leaps out of the pack. If only one could say the same thing about the story behind the cover.

The cat-and-mouse game between Adam, Polly, and numerous secondary characters plays out slowly considering the book's relatively short page count. Only one of them has arrived in Belleville by accident. Polly's abandonment of her husband and child during a beach vacation certainly intrigues; her deliberately plotted escape reeks of a woman fleeing either a dangerous past or an uncertain future. The appearance of Adam—a private investigator tasked with following her for unknown reasons—suggests a little of both. As long as his employer and her fears remain in the shadows the suspense continues to build. Once Adam's boss becomes a figure, however, the central question shifted from what his and Polly's secrets were into who would confess or uncover them first. While this possibility gives both main characters considerable anxiety, the reader's more omniscient perspective dampens any worries considerably.

As main characters, Adam and Polly both fail to captivate as fully as they should. Sold as a winsome schemer, Polly's backstory reveals her more as a desperate woman capitalizing on the egos of the men around her. Expecting more of a grand design—or even a long-term con, as the dust jacket hints at—reading instead about someone scrambling to make up for mistakes or lost ground disappointed. At least Polly took a proactive role throughout the myriad twists and turns, though. Adam, by contrast, quickly sinks into a lovesick fog once his romance with Polly develops. Many of his later chapters wear treads over the same tired ground: to trust his lover, or not? An engaging dilemma elsewhere diminished by aimless repetition here.

Lippman does write in an engaging, swift-flowing prose. It often makes her characters seem cleverer or deeper than their actions support; with its quick pacing and promise of a more earth-shattering revelation, I read Sunburn in nearly one sitting hoping for a stronger ending than it gave.

None of the issues mentioned above irrevocably cripple this summery thriller. Disappointment stems from its mediocrity, never significantly better or worse than the average. Those looking for a bit of light entertainment on their next vacation would do well to give Sunburn a try. If, like me, you're burnt out on a string of mysteries each one hard to distinguish from the last, then this title probably won't be a salve for the...well, burn.


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