Sunset City by Melissa Ginsburg
Ecco, 2016; 208 pp
Reviewed by Charlie Riccardelli
Noir can often be a bleak genre, but few noir novels feature the level of despair that you’ll find in Melissa Ginsburg’s Sunset City. The characters that inhabit Sunset City teeter on the edge of an ever-shrinking precipice in which self-destruction rules and hope can destroy you just as easily as hopelessness. Thanks to Ginsburg’s spare but poetic evocation of lost souls wandering around Houston, Texas, Sunset City vividly captures the longing and heartache that punctuates many people who feel like redemption will never come.
The book opens when Charlotte Ford arrives at her apartment one evening to find a police detective outside her home. Charlotte’s friend Danielle Reeves has been murdered, bludgeoned to death. Charlotte is shocked by the news. She and Danielle had been close since high school, two girls with tortured pasts who found solidarity through hard-living up until Danielle went to prison. Only days earlier, they had reconnected in a bar when Charlotte met with Danielle on behalf of Danielle’s mother regarding an inheritance from a wealthy family member. They hoped to rekindle their friendship, but Danielle’s death sends the wounded Charlotte wandering into the grim nights of Houston, falling back into drugs, booze, one-night stands, and the sordid life in which Danielle spent her final days.
Though Melissa Ginsburg begins Sunset City with what might appear to be a standard mystery-crime plot, the author wisely avoids the trapping associated with the genre for something more real and nakedly honest—a meditation on how people function when they feel the world has cast them aside. What continues to resonate with this reviewer and sometimes made the book, while an incredible read, too painful to bear, is the way in which the plight of the characters is more that they survive rather than succumb to their demons. Charlotte knows who Danielle really was even when others thought less of her. That Danielle never had the life Charlotte thought she deserved breaks her heart. Charlotte struggles to get by herself. She is plagued by memories of her past, struggles at work, and deals with her two-timing boyfriend. With Danielle’s death, Charlotte risks her long road to recovery by succumbing to her demons. Melissa Ginsburg has a delicate but skilled approach to Charlotte’s story. Reading Sunset City, it’s a marvel that our author could come out of this tortured world intact, but she’s done so and brought to us a most powerful and moving novel.