Published by Berkley on February 18, 2020
The secrets lurking in a rundown roadside motel ensnare a young woman, just as they did her aunt thirty-five years before, in this new atmospheric suspense novel from the national bestselling and award-winning author of The Broken Girls.
Upstate NY, 1982. Every small town like Fell, New York, has a place like the Sun Down Motel. Some customers are from out of town, passing through on their way to someplace better. Some are locals, trying to hide their secrets. Viv Delaney works as the night clerk to pay for her move to New York City. But something isn't right at the Sun Down, and before long she's determined to uncover all of the secrets hidden…
I read and adored Simone James’s The Broken Girls not too long ago, and had immediately snapped up The Sun Down Motel when it was offered as a January 2020 BOTM pick. I sat it on my TBR shelf and waited for the right time, because I knew that James wrote with themes and that one day it would reach its little tendrils out to me and say “OK Patricia, today’s the day.” Turns out that day was in June 2020, six months after its initial release. But that’s OK, because it was here right when I needed it.
How I’d Describe This Book to a Friend
“The night it all ended, Vivian was alone. She felt like crying. She felt like screaming. She felt sick. “I don’t want to go in there. But I will. Because I always do.”
Similarly to The Broken Girls, The Sun Down Motel operates on a dual POV, back-and-forth timeline. We are in the present – well, 2017 anyway – with Carly, whose aunt Vivian went missing one day back in 1982. Nobody knows why, either – one night she went to work her night shift job at this creepy old motel in the middle of nowhere (Fell, New York to be precise which is I believe fictional but serves as a tiny hole in the wall town to lay our scenery down), and she never went home. Nobody even reported her missing for 4 days. Carly’s mother has always been very evasive about her sister’s disappearance, and now with her mother dead there is nothing stopping Carly from finding out the truth about her aunt Viv’s disappearing act – after all, someone clearly killed her.
Carly is all of us – she is definitely me. She is 20 years old and wears glasses which she is constantly pushing up the bridge of her nose and sighing over, she’s a huge true crime buff and a big nerd with an even bigger penchant for getting into some bullshit. And she is committed to seeing justice, though she is fairly naive. Carly winds up taking a vacant night clerk position at the Sun Down – a motel that has not changed at all since 1982 when Viv worked there, down to the landline telephones and the manual, metal keys on worn-down key fobs. Working nights there is like a time warp, and she can see exactly what was going on with Viv – and damn, that includes some freakin’ ghosts, you guys.
We also see Viv’s 1982 portrayal, and how much of a mirror she is to Carly. She is also 20, lost and feeling aimless. She stopped in Fell on her way to NYC to make it big and just … never really left, and now she’s working nights at the Sun Down Motel to make ends meet. Nobody really knows Vivian exists, and she likes that just fine – but there are some ghosts at the Sun Down, and they sure notice her. From a little boy trapped in the swimming pool to the guy who walks around smelling like a fresh cigarette, something is up – but the worst of them all is the woman who calls and just breathes into the phone, who Viv sees one day – who locks eyes with her and utters one chilling word: “Run.”
Viv and Carly are connected across time, but what they don’t know is that they are connected by so many other women, too.
The Bottom Line
This is a ghost story, but it’s so much deeper than that. It’s about feminism, about how scary it is to be a woman – it was scary in 1982, it was scary in 2017, it is sure as hell scary now in 2020. It will always be, I suspect, scary to be a woman. The Sun Down is haunted by the ghosts of crimes committed against women over the years, and it is sprinkled with reminders that women are forced to bow down to the wills of men if they want to get anywhere in this world. Everywhere you look in this book there is a gross man, a mother warning you to not go out at night, to carry a knife, pepper spray. Protect yourself, or bad things will happen like they happened to countless other women before you.
The motel itself is a character, and it is terrifying. You feel claustrophobic and pigeon-holed and stuck. You and your family stayed at this place on the way to Florida once, probably, and you said “never again” because it was gross and creepy and just felt wrong. James does a superb job of making you feel the way Carly and Viv does on those long, cold, lonely nights. Can you imagine being the only one on a motel office and sitting there, watching the lights flicker off one by one outside each door, watching each (locked!) door blow wide open, systematically, up and down the hall? Nope.
I won’t go into much plot detail because the story that connects Viv to Carly is very expertly woven across decades, and it does give a satisfying conclusion. I felt knife-twists in my gut for Carly and Viv both, in different times and for different reasons, and for all of the ghosts present in these pages. While it is not a strong “spooky” book, there were a couple of times where I felt the hair stand up on my arms – I don’t spook easily, especially with a book, so this is A Big Deal and a reason to praise it.
If you are a feminist, you should read this book. If you like a thriller, you should read this book. If you’ve listened to “Earl” by the Dixie Chicks and said “fuck that guy,” you should read this book. Frankly, everyone should read this book, but I know I won’t capture the “no spooky books” club members here, so I am casting my net as widely as possible.
The only real minor critiques I have are two: one is that it took a while to get into this book, and it is barely over 300 pages – it started slow, but then it picked up quickly. I recall The Broken Girls having the same issue, and I think this is just where James shines – the slow-burn supernatural thriller. The other point of contention I have is that this book goes out of its way to describe the neon sign outside the Sun Down Motel as blue and yellow at least eight times over the course of the book. Every time I shut the cover I got irrationally angry:
Would it have killed you to photoshop this thing to be blue instead of red? I mean come on. That said this is a minor nitpick and it won’t break immersion, it’ll just annoy you a tiny bit if you’re like me and a type A enneagram 1 who wants things to be Just So. The fact that one of the only things I can pick on here is the cover colors should tell you something. Please read this book.
“The books I read were the dark kind — about scary things like disappearances and murders, especially the true ones. While other kids read J. K. Rowling, I read Stephen King. While other kids did history reports about the Civil War, I read about Lizzie Borden.”