The Hippo


May 28, 2020








Sunburn, by Laura Lippman; audiobook read by Susan Bennett
(HarperAudio, running time 9 hours, 9 minutes)


Sunburn, by Laura Lippman; audiobook read by Susan Bennett (HarperAudio, running time 9 hours, 9 minutes)
It’s clear from the moment Adam Bosk sets his eyes on a sunburned Polly Costello in a small-town bar in Delaware that Polly is up to something. Of course, Adam is a private investigator who has been hired to “get close to her.” Adam knows she’s left her husband and daughter behind at the beach during what was supposed to be a family vacation. Adam knows she’s up to something but he has no idea what, and Polly isn’t giving anything away. 
But this noir-style novel, set in the mid-1990s, isn’t really about Adam, though he’s plenty compelling on his own. It’s about Polly, who decides small-town life in Delaware suits her just fine and begins work as a waitress at the downscale bar called the “High-Ho,” not really trying all that hard to hide from her husband. Adam, pretending his truck “threw a rod” leaving him stranded too, signs on to be the cook at the bar a few days later. Predictably, they begin a passionate relationship, layered with Polly’s complicated and potentially murderous past, and the fact that Adam is still supposed to be investigating her. 
Beyond Polly and Adam’s inevitable relationship, there’s next to nothing in Sunburn that I would consider predictable. Polly’s past is checkered. She killed her abusive husband, who happened to be a crooked Baltimore police officer, and went to prison before being pardoned for her crime. She also has two daughters, both of whom — as far as Adam knows — she has left behind. And yet he finds her irresistible. 
Polly is planning; she’s always planning. Polly had previously won a multimillion-dollar settlement at the hospital where her first daughter was born that she has yet to collect. Her current husband, who actually doesn’t know about her past, has no idea about the settlement.
While the execution is necessarily complicated, her plan is simple: divorce her husband without him finding out about the settlement, collect her money, and live happily ever after with her two daughters. Falling in love with Adam was not part of her plan. 
Adam is hired by the crooked insurance agent who worked with her now-deceased husband. While he’s vague with Adam on the details initially, the insurance man predictably wants a cut from Polly’s hospital settlement. As Adam learns more about Polly, while falling more and more in love, it’s clear he’ll need to figure out how to come clean regarding his investigation.
Polly is a tremendous character, layered like an onion, intriguing, sultry, mysterious, whip-smart, but terribly elusive. But under all those adjectives, Lippman does a fantastic job creating a real character — a strong yet flawed woman who dealt with a terrible situation and is still making the best of it. In doing so, Lippman touches on larger issues of abuse, control and domestic violence. 
Susan Bennett is a terrific narrator, capturing the melodic drum beat of the story’s pace, which is perfectly windy for a solid chunk of the novel, before the pace quickens to a nearly breathless climax. The bulk of the novel is told from Polly and Adam’s perspectives, but you also hear directly from other characters, which helps paint a complete picture of Polly’s situation. 
The writing is excellent, with wonderful descriptive passages that illuminate characters. Here, Lippman describes Adam’s appreciation for hunting and solitude, specifically the waiting: “He goes to the woods of western Maryland where he can spend an entire day sitting in a tree waiting, and he loves it. Tom Petty was wrong about that. The waiting is not the hardest part. Waiting can be beautiful, lush, full of possibility.”
I loved the little details in this book: Polly would submit “whiskey down rye” as an order at the bar when she wanted to see Adam later. Adam is a great cook and it’s hard not to appreciate the care and thought he puts into one of his first, truly kind gestures directed at Polly: he makes her a grilled cheese sandwich with chopped up bacon, because it makes it easier to eat, rather than layering full strips. 
Sunburn is a love story but it’s also a psychological thriller that keeps you guessing and the pages turning. The story makes you think about how right and wrong fit together. The twists are many and all are satisfying, if blindsiding.
B+ — Jeff Mucciarone

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