In bestselling author Paula McLain’s new novel, When The Stars Go Dark (Ballantine), Detective Anna Hart is always running from terrible memories. They could be nightmares about her mother’s death, her childhood separation from her brother and sister, or her tumultuous time in foster care. Most recently, though, she’s bolting from a fractured marriage caused by the loss of a child.
The odd thing is that Anna rushes toward her job as a detective at the Searchlight Project in San Francisco, where she investigates the heartbreaking cases of missing and abused children. She’s become so immersed in her the law-enforcement world that her husband, Brendan, accuses her of neglecting their family and asks her to leave.
Anna returns to the only place of comfort during her turbulent upbringing: the seaside village of Mendocino, California. As a troubled teen, she’d made her home with beloved Hap, a forest ranger and survival expert, and his nature-loving wife, Eden. Anna needs time to think, regroup, and convince Brendan that their marriage is worth saving.
However, the pull of finding lost children is too strong to resist. A missing-teen poster in a local coffeehouse draws her into a case that reunites her with her past and the decade-old mystery of a friend, Jenny Ledford, who disappeared shortly before leaving for college. The poster girl is Cameron Curtis, the adopted daughter of a film star, Emily Curtis, who is a recent transplant to Mendocino. Her parents believe Cameron ran away, but there are no leads as to her whereabouts.
CAN THEY TURN THIS CASE AROUND?
Mendocino’s sheriff, Will Flood, is an old friend of Anna and Jenny’s and happily invites Anna to join his unproductive investigation. He has no leads, and the Curtis’ request for privacy further stymies Will’s ability to seek outside assistance. It is a time of horror in Northern California as Will and Anna’s investigation leads them to two other concurrent cases which seem to mirror Cameron’s.
The first is the disappearance of Shannan Russo, another troubled teen from nearby Gualala, and pre-teen Polly Klaas, who was kidnapped at knifepoint from her home in Petaluma. At first, Anna’s attempt to connect the cases appears to be a stretch, but a psychic intervenes to help her connect the dots. In Cameron’s case, interviews with relatives, friends and teachers reveal no suspects, but Will and Anna discover that life is not as picture-perfect as the Curtis’ lead the world to believe. Will, who’s burdened by his own personal issues, also wants more from Anna; he wants her to help him solve Jenny’s disappearance. Is it fate or coincidence that has brought Anna back to Mendocino during this tragedy?
Anna becomes obsessed with the three missing-teen cases. She pushes herself to find a commonality among her witnesses and the victims by processing each victim through the tragic lens of her own issues of abandonment, sexual abuse and guilt. Reasoning that to understand the perpetrator she must completely understand her victims, the lines become blurred between their cases and her own. This level of commitment and empathy has made her a terrific cop, but a lousy wife and mother.
McLain has set the narrative in 1993, which makes Anna and Will’s task even more challenging. There are no cellphones or video conferences, only the early dawn of the internet and fax machines. Weaving the true crime of murder victim Polly Klaas into the narrative, McLain exposes the reader to one of the first criminal investigations to use these new technologies. Polly’s case, and her legacy, became an international affair as word spread over the internet of her abduction from Petaluma, California and the attempts to find her.
PROFOUND FOR BOTH AUTHOR AND CHARACTER
When Anna’s path intersects with the predator, the survival skills learned once from Hap protect her in the now. The chilling climax of the story is satisfying as the pieces of Anna’s puzzle neatly connect the past with the present. Ultimately, Anna must learn to forgive herself for the guilt she bears and reach out to others for help.
McLain, who is best known for the historical novel The Paris Wife, creates strong female characters who must overcome obstacles in their paths. In When the Stars Go Dark, McLain relies on her own personal history with Mendocino, the foster care system, and child abuse to tailor a character who boldly seeks to protect victims of sexual assault and to shine a light on the importance of Polly Klaas’ true-life story.
McLain admits that her protagonist’s obsession with trauma and healing stems from her own fascination with those subjects. Reading between the lines, the reader will not only understand the importance of stopping and prosecuting sexual violence to Anna, but to McLain herself.
When the Stars Go Dark is truly an intimate and illuminating experience. Kudos to McLain for laying her soul bare and penning the most personal book she’s ever written.