Jan and I were anxious to read this book because we had liked this author’s previous books. This was a departure for Paula McLain as she is not previous to now been a thriller author. However, we found much to like about this story, and once again felt the pain that some children bear at being left and abandoned by their parents. It is a hurt that never leaves them, and for many it is the basis on which they build their lives. The stars do indeed go dark, as well as the world when children are both abandoned and taken by the evilness that pervades this world.
“Every 73 seconds someone in America becomes the victim of sexual assault. Every nine minutes one of those victims is a child. 82% of victims under the age of eighteen are female. The effects of sexual violence can be long lasting and profound.”
The story opens in 1993, the year the real- life Polly Klaas was taken from her home at knifepoint. The case drew nationwide attention before cell phones, national data bases, Amber alerts, and crowdsourcing was available to help solve crimes. There was a rash of abductions of girls in the vicinity during this time frame.
It is against this backdrop that Anna, reeling from a personal tragedy, arrives in her hometown of Mendocino, CA. Her childhood friend, Will, who is now the town sheriff, enlists her help in the investigation of a missing teenage girl.
Anna is an expert in missing children, a detective who has made it her life’s work to save and find justice for young victims. Her own life has been filled with trauma, and she is obsessed in finding redemption through helping children.
Anna is a complex person and, through her, the reader learns a lot about trauma, healing, the suffering of families, the psychological profiles of victims and predators, and the lasting psychological damage to survivors. Factual details are woven into the narrative. Fans of true crime, like me, will find these sections most insightful. As the mother of a daughter, and Nana to three very young granddaughters, it’s not always comfortable reading, but it’s imperative that I educate myself.
There are many dimensions and themes in this story, all blended seamlessly: of the importance of community, of pain and loss, but also healing, forgiveness and peace.
This is a character-driven slow burn, one that forces the reader to slow down to savor the writing. It takes a bit of patience in the beginning.
The natural world in the woods and forest, cliffs and beaches surrounding Mendocino play an important part of the story. Anna’s foster father taught her much, and she draws on those instincts when it’s a matter of life and death. I’m not usually one for descriptive writing, but in this case found the descriptions beautiful and atmospheric.
This was another terrific buddy read with my friend Marialyce, one we both found very insightful. We’ve both read and enjoyed the author’s historical fiction books, and with this book, she has proven herself capable of crossing genres into mystery/thrillers. We both appreciated the afterword, where we learn this story was inspired by events in the author’s life.
Note that despite such a dark subject, there are no graphic descriptions of abuse or violence toward children in these pages. (Minor spoiler alert, but important for animal lovers to know: the dog does not die!)
There is an undeniable hole in one’s heart that is never filled when your child is lost. No matter how it happens from illness, from neglect, from being taken as is this book’s theme, the damage done to families and the kidnapped child never goes away.
Anna Hart and Will Flood, childhood friends, are on the trail of a young adopted girl who was taken from her actress mother and successful father. Anna herself a survivor of an abusive childhood, understands only too well the pain the girl, Cameron, is and has gone through for Anna recalls her earlier life with her mother and two other children. Anna, however, was recused by a kind and loving couple who taught her many lessons of life and survival, and so she ends up in a profession that while she fears it, becomes her obsession. Anna has been hiding her thoughts away about a tragedy that happened in her small-town years ago, that she never quite recovered from. Returning to this small town, the memories slowly return and as Anna volunteers to help Will, the town sheriff, with a missing girl case, she finds that resilience and stamina buried inside herself so well taught by her foster father.
As the pieces come together, we see into the trauma and the family crisis so many children go through and how many a predator sees the children he targets as lonely, misunderstood, and fearful. The police and Anna delve deeper into this case tie it in the ongoing Polly Klaas case, a famous case that occurred in 1993, and others and determine through hard work and clues that a serial killer is on the loose.
This story takes place before the advent before of DNA and the cooperation of states to a mass data source. There are naturally suspects but as the team gets closer to the truth, the real perpetrator is one that shocks Anna and the team.
I appreciated how the author took us deep into the psyche of children being abandoned and maltreated. She had a most close affinity to the suffering of the children having been herself a victim of abandonment. She does devote quite a bit of the book to speaking of this horrendous happening and how children are affected both mentally and physically, and hopefully in writing of Anna, she has found a way to allay somewhat her hurt about her own tragedy.
Bottom line is we have an extremely serious dilemma in this country with missing and abandoned children. Some are shuttled to foster care and as was in the author’s case go through a plethora of homes until they are let out of the system. Child predators know who to target as they lead these children into lives of depravity and horror. This story certainly focused its eye on that pivotal issue and the issue of how hard it is to find these children.
Thank you to Paula McLain, Ballantine Books, and Netgalley for a copy of this story due out on April 13, 2021
and here’s the author:
Paula McLain is the author of the New York Times bestselling novels, The Paris Wife, Circling the Sun, and Love and Ruin. On April 13th, 2021 she introduces her latest title, When the Stars Go Dark.
Paula McLain was born in Fresno, California in 1965. After being abandoned by both parents, she and her two sisters became wards of the California Court System, moving in and out of various foster homes for the next fourteen years. When she aged out of the system, she supported herself by working as a nurses aid in a convalescent hospital, a pizza delivery girl, an auto-plant worker, a cocktail waitress–before discovering she could (and very much wanted to) write. She received her MFA in poetry from the University of Michigan in 1996.
She is the author of The Paris Wife, a New York Times and international bestseller, which has been published in thirty-four languages. The recipient of fellowships from Yaddo, The MacDowell Colony, the Cleveland Arts Prize, the Ohio Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts, she is also the author of two collections of poetry; a memoir, Like Family, Growing up in Other People’s Houses; and a first novel, A Ticket to Ride. She lives with her family in Cleveland.