Walking out of a Naked Lunch screening, The Simpsons’ Nelson said, “I can think of at least two things wrong with that title.” There’s at least one thing wrong with the title of Laura Lippman’s Sunburn, although you’d be a fool to choose this book over Naked Lunch no matter how you feel about the Beat Generation.
It’s 1995, and Polly is a member of Generation X: a thirty-something mom of two kids, one from each of two marriages that have both ended, let’s say, badly. Wounded physically and emotionally by her abusive relationship with husband number one, Polly takes a job waiting tables at a small mid-Atlantic town.
A private investigator named Adam, who happens to be extremely attractive (we’re told many times), shows up to the eye-rollingly obvious soundtrack of “I’d Like to Get to Know You,” blasting from the greasy spoon’s jukebox.
That’s a 1968 song by Spanky and Our Gang, but you have to do your own private investigation to figure that out. Like most of the pop-culture references dropped by Lippman, this one’s a breadcrumb that all but sounds like a ping in your ears: “Now, pause this audiobook and go to Google. When you’re ready to resume the story, just press play.”
This non-specificity is meant, it seems, to evoke both the characters’ distracted state and the imprecise nature of memory, but it applies to all of Lippman’s characters — and it’s oddly precise in its vagueness. One character remembers hearing a song about a “maneater” on the radio about 15 years ago. Does anyone actually think that way?
“There was some song about a gold digger, about which I remember absolutely nothing else, that was a big hit…oh, say about 15 years ago.” (That’s actually off by two years, as is the Hall and Oates reference in the book.)
About that misleading title. When you hear the book is a psychological romantic thriller set during the summer in a vacation town, you might assume that Sunburn is a juicy beach read, all about the sexy problems of beautiful people. In fact, Sunburn is all burn and no sun. Scenes unfold in the dark, nondescript bar; in Polly’s sparsely furnished apartment; or in the past.
Only a couple significant pieces of action actually happen in the novel’s primary timeframe; most of the plot developments hinge on the disclosure of facts about the past, usually revealed simultaneously to a major character and the reader. Once it becomes clear that we’re meant to be hanging on tenterhooks for the privilege of learning stock details about the lives of boring characters, Sunburn becomes a slog.
Audiobook narrator Susan Bennett matches the tone and pacing of Lippman’s prose all too well. Why is it that the worst books are read most slowly? I sped the audio to 1.25x, and the pregnant pauses were still long enough to stretch your legs, take a piss, smoke a cigarette, and do a shot.
Literal sunburn does make an appearance early on, as Adam catches a glimpse of Polly’s roasted shoulder blades — which, we learn, are as prominent as wings on her back. That’s the point at which the wise reader would be well-advised to take flight from this rookery of bland metaphor and tedious intrigue.