Click here to read reviewer Luan Gaines's take on Sunburn.
Lippman's tale of duplicity and greed traces romance found, lost, then found again. Set in 1995 Belleville, Delaware, the novel--an homage to the great James M. Caine--has moments of gut-wrenching suspense interspersed with heartless cruelty and innocent love. In writing that is taut, sufficiently descriptive and memorable, the best-laid plans are laid flat by the simplest of things. In Belleville's High-Ho Tavern, Adam Bosk notices gorgeous redhead Polly Costello sitting on a barstool. His attraction to her is instant. This is a woman who, for much of her young life, has caught the eyes of men.
The two begin an illicit affair, although it is hard to say who is attracted to whom. Is it Polly's seductive nature that rubs off on Adam, or does the vulnerable drifter rub off on her? Maybe Polly says it best: "if only you knew what it means to walk away from something, what it takes." Polly's perfect escape might not be so perfect. She's just walked out on her husband, Gregg, leaving him to look after baby daughter Jani. Polly has some money, but she needs more so she can head West. Gregg's life gradually unspools after Polly's surprise desertion: "She used to be that kind of person. But she's not going to be, not anymore."
If fate or karma has a say in the way things turn out, then Polly, Gregg, and Adam don't have much to look forward to. Gregg seethes at the growing list of everything he perceives as Polly's fault. She's ruined his life--or tried too--so he sets about trying to find her to make her pay. Polly gets a job at the High-Ho bar, all but inviting herself into Adam's bed as Adam tries not to make a wrong move. With a secret agenda of his own, Adam attempts to make himself invisible by becoming the tavern's chef. Polly encourages Adam to stay in Belleville. Is she an arch-manipulator, or does she genuinely love him? At a Saturday auction, Adam buys her a bed. Polly plays the good sport, the kind of girl who doesn't mind if her hair gets tousled. She carries the scars of physical abuse perpetuated by her first husband, Burton Ditmars, a dirty cop responsible for a series of "accidental" deadly fires throughout Baltimore. Shady Irving Lowenstein, who knew about Ditmars, hopes he can find the insurance money he's convinced Polly has "parked" somewhere. The cynical, jowlyclaims adjuster must find a way of unravelling what appears to be Polly's flawless crime.
Polly's entire life once centered on her daughter Joy and her grim marriage to Ditmars. She was stuck: "Circumstances being what they were," Polly couldn't leave him. For years this was her life. Now fate has intervened with Adam's arrival: "the man she needs, the man she deserves." Adam wants it this way, too. He tries to shut down the paranoid voice in his head, the one worrying about Irving Lowenstein and the ethics of his job for him. Adam is hooked, addicted to Polly; he's almost gone too far. Friendly colleagues at work while secret lovers at night, Polly holds close to her tight-lipped denials about why she wants to drive to Baltimore in Adam's truck.
Lippman lights the fuse on a stick of dynamite, unfurling the mistrust and machinations among Polly, Adam, Gregg, and Lowenstein. Who is actually playing who? Who is in their relationship for the money or for love? Shepherding us through a masochistic, carnal crime-noir fantasy, Lippman's stream-of-conscious style carefully builds each character's back story--especially Polly, who at first is careful to keep her relationship with Adam a secret. She knows she's going to have to break things off with him when she leaves town as she's planned. She tells us that men have done things for her in world that seems "too much like commerce."
After Adam suspects Polly of murder, she encourages him to stay in Belleville. Adam resists and prepares to leave, but only after he breaks off his affair with the other High-Ho waitress, Cath Whitmire. Everything changes in an instant. Between Polly and Adam a spark of animal magnetism surges that instantly binds each to the other. After a suspicious fire burns down Polly's apartment, the two lovebirds engage in rough, passionate sex. Polly reveals to Adam her discontent with Gregg, and Adam is secretly suspicious of Lowenstein as he attempts to get closer to the whereabouts of the hefty insurance policy that Polly had taken out on Joy. Adam begins to speculate that Polly has set him up. The pair patch things up, in no small part because Polly admits that she's in love with Adam while still desperate to see her long-term plan come to fruition.
Lippman melds suspense with a clever descent into the human heart's lower regions. Is Polly a murderer? A Machiavellian femme-fatale? Or is she a victim of Ditmars, the abusive cop? At fourteen, Polly certainly can't blame herself for thinking that he was offering her a decent life. Similarly, Adam is a bundle of contradictions and barely understood impulses. As Lippman pulls these complex characters together, she offers a tough-minded portrayal of the consequences of greed and lust, and hints at the barest possibility of true love.