The Sun Down Motel by Simone St. James is a supernatural mystery novel that alternates between two time periods in Upstate New York. In 1982, Viv wants to move to NYC and to support herself she gets a job at The Sun Down Motel. But something isn’t quite right at this place. Something haunting and chilling. Fast-forward to 2017, we meet Carly who hasn’t been able to shake the story of her Aunt Viv disappearing from a local motel years ago. Deciding to visit the location of her aunt’s disappearance, Carly quickly realises that nothing has changed in the last 35 years, and she’s about to fall down the same hole of mysteries that claimed her aunt.
The Broken Girls was a book that I enjoyed quite a lot (my review), so I was feeling pretty excited to read the author’s newest title, and even though The Sun Down Motel had some good traits, it wasn’t as great as its predecessor.
Let’s start with the aspects that I did enjoy. Firstly, it’s excellently atmospheric, especially in the second half. The spookiness with the supernatural elements, the suspicious nature of some of the characters, the tension and anxiety that the two ladies felt while they became intertwined in the mystery of disappearing girls in the small town they both became stuck in—all of it worked well together to create a complementary chilling environment and foundation for the narrative. Additionally, the friendship that Carly built with Heather was really endearing. They’re both women who have their own personal baggage and it helped to formulate a bond that had some dimension to it. These two things when tossed together helped make the book nearly unputdownable for the last one-hundred to one-hundred-fifty pages. Unfortunately, they were also the only decent parts of The Sun Down Motel.
There are about three big issues that made the book a disappointment. Firstly, the POVs of the women from 1982 and 2017 were pretty interchangeable at times due to the similarities and it made it difficult for me to stay invested in their plights, especially because it became easy to blur the lines between them and to lose track of who’s perspective I was reading in the moment.
Secondly, there’s a decent amount of ableist dialogue, especially with regard to being thin and not being “crazy.” The use of the word “crazy” is tossed around so callously that it can easily be hurtful to some readers out there. I know that as person with mental health illnesses, especially ones that are sometimes grounded in paranoia and anxiety, I didn’t appreciate it at all. None of these things are ever challenged. I also didn’t care for the superficial commentary about beauty and beauty standards (being White, thin, able-bodied, having blue eyes and blonde/brown hair, etc.). Couple that with the anti-Black dialogue (used to exhibit the small town, conservative White culture of the 1980s New York), it was a humongous eyerolling fest all around. It’s just incredibly distasteful and was completely unnecessary, especially when emphasis is placed on it for no reason whatsoever, narratively speaking.
Thirdly, there was a character who was described as an asexual individual (the descriptions made them sound very asexual, although the actual word was not used), but in the end it turned out that they were merely timid and socially uncomfortable. It felt like the author couldn’t tell the difference between an awkward introvert and lacking romantic experiences, and someone who just doesn’t feel sexual desire and impulses. Being anti-social does not equate to be asexual and being asexual isn’t like choosing toppings on a pizza. For a lot of us asexuals, it is much more than that. A lot of us are born like this and has absolutely nothing to do with how introverted or extroverted we are. Additionally, the emphasis that beautiful people will always have a desire for sex, even if they are repulsed by the very idea of sex, is complete and total bullshit, and such a hurtful representation of beauty standards and sexual identities. You can be both. Also, the whole bit about sexuality really didn’t contribute at all to the overarching story and could easily have been edited out of the book without compromising the story’s integrity or structure. I ended up taking off 2-stars for this whole bit because as an asexual person I find this whole idea that beautiful people can’t be asexual or that asexuality is just something introverts and anti-social folx turn to when they can’t meet people to be outrageously fucked-up and ignorant.
Overall, sexuality and beauty standards aside, the story of two women separated by time who are trying to solve a terrible mystery wasn’t a bad one. There were some minor plot holes and a couple of side plot lines that, if left out or properly fleshed out, would have made the book feel far more polished and consistent. I think if that if you are a fan of James’ other works, or if you enjoyed The Broken Girls, then there are parts of this book that you will find pleasant. But as a mystery book, there are some better ones out there that will be more fulfilling for your spooktacular needs than The Sun Down Motel.
2.25 flickering lights outta 5!
Content Warnings: Ableist language. Some anti-Black content. Infidelity. Mention of rape and sexual assault, non-descriptive. Sexism.