To say Laura Lippman’s protagonist in her new novel Sunburn is an enigma, is akin to saying that a yellow painted bar of lead is equal to solid gold.
It’s 1995, and Polly Costello is on the run. Of course Polly Costello is not her real name. In a similar but by no means identical story line to Emily Culliton’s The Misfortune of Marion Palm or Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go Bernadette? Polly abandons her husband and daughter during an painfully miserable beach vacation. That she chooses this exact moment to leave, is at first seemingly callous but as the novel moves forward, we learn that Polly has her reasons for choosing such a course of action.
She’s nothing if not a fast learner and a quick study, her life’s experiences with men providing a schooling she never would have sought willingly. Polly is sassy, sexy but also a cynic, wary of people who believe in luck and fate:
Is there anything sadder than losers telling themselves that they’re fortunate? She used to be that way, but not anymore. She calls things the way they are, starting with herself.
Polly hides in the small town of Belleville, Delaware, away from the life she used to have, finding a job as a bartender in a small run-down tavern, the High-Ho. We know she’s hiding plenty, because she tells us this. But she doesn’t confide in us any more than she does in anyone. Not even Adam, a man who sits in the bar stool next to her when she first arrives in Belleville, a mystery himself, but a beacon for Polly who can’t help her attraction to him.
Their initial game of thrust and parry, spins into an intense affair despite the promises to herself that she wants a new start with no ties. Adam takes a job as a cook alongside Polly, but it’s not just because of his increasing interest in her. Adam, like Polly, has a hidden purpose for being in Belleville.
Sunburn is a step away from Lippman’s popular thrillers, usually starring tenacious reporter Tess Monaghan. This one is more noir than mystery, with minor characters who get their own spotlight moments: a private detective, a video store employee, Polly’s mother-in-law. Seemingly unimportant and a bit tiresome when they annoyingly slow down the real action in the novel, that of Polly and Adam along with what they’re hiding from us and from each other. But after a time, Lippman’s intentions with the insertion of these chapters are translated into much needed pauses. They’re a bit of water to help digest the main course.
In the past, men have resented Polly for her ability to entice and “bewitch” them, and while Adam doesn’t resent her, he surely doesn’t trust her either. He has reasons not to. As more and more pieces of Polly’s past come to light, Adam is torn between his attraction for her and his need to know everything she’s hiding from him.
Polly is likewise distrustful, not knowing Adam’s intentions or if he’s just one more man wanting to fool and use her. The sex is carnal and extremely satisfying, but the walls between them never completely disappear. It’s no surprise that she fondly recalls a film series she used to watch in a museum, 1940s black-and-whites: Double Indemnity, Mildred Pierce, The Post Man Always Ring Twice. Polly’s fondness and interest in them aren’t for entertainment purposes. She’s watching. And learning.
Lippman has created characters that are far from upstanding, but are uncommonly appealing. Their allure is both in their strength and weaknesses, particularly when Polly becomes Adam’s Achilles’ Heel and he becomes hers, although we doubt Polly’s feelings until the very end. Her cunning is much stronger than his, and so is her capacity for detachment. When tragedy strikes in Belleville, we can’t help but presume of her involvement with it. We know there is a dangerous game being played. We’re just not sure who is the hunter and who the prey.
As Polly’s and Adam’s secrets come to light, Lippman displays incredible ability to keep us blind to the truth until the last page. As Polly’s moods change and shift, Adam is reminded of an old folk song: “Where did you go, my Handsome Polly-O? What do you know, my Handsome Polly-O?” Polly retreats into herself, wanting to be alone, and then immediately after gravitates towards Adam again. Polly frequently ponders on the dilemma on Adam intruding in her life:
Things are so complicated now. It wasn’t supposed to be this complicated. There wasn’t supposed to be an Adam. But he planted himself in her path and she can’t shake him, even though she knows she should. Eventually, he will trust her, come to see that he was wrong to doubt her.
But how can she trust him?
Sunburn is so much more than a woman who abandons all for a new life and falls in love with a man she doesn’t really know. Lippman establishes a dichotomy of having to choose between love and freedom, present and future. To call it psychological thriller just doesn’t cut it.
Sunburn is noir fiction at its finest.