Read with sharon - July 2021

When the stars go dark by paula mclain

“If you think about it, most of us have very little choice about what we’re going to become or who we’re going to love, or what place on earth chooses us, becoming home. All we can do is go when we’re called, and pray we’ll still be taken in.” –When the Stars Go Dark 

A San Francisco homicide detective traumatized by personal tragedy and the many horrors she’s encountered returns to Mendocino, once her childhood sanctuary, only to be drawn into the case of a missing girl and the unresolved mysteries of her own past.

“For as long as I could remember, I’d had reasons to disappear,” Anna Hart muses. “I was an expert at making myself invisible.” Orphaned at 8 and reared in a series of foster homes, this police detective has an unwavering commitment to the cases of missing and murdered children and an uncanny “radar for victims.”

But the disappearance of Cameron Curtis recalls for Anna a more distant Mendocino mystery: the vanishing of a childhood friend of hers in 1972.

And when two more girls are abducted shortly after Cameron—one of them the real-life Polly Klaas—the stage seems set for a predictable serial killer hunt. But McLain largely avoids that well-trodden path to craft instead a psychological thriller that deftly evokes both the entrancing landscape of the Mendocino hills and the rough terrain of shattered lives. “No one can save anyone,” the haunted Anna laments at the outset, but the novel’s convincing outcome, while grimly realistic, permits her to think otherwise.

Most memorable of all are the girls, past and present, who emerge here not as convenient victims but as vulnerable, believable characters.

A muted yet thrilling multilayered mystery enriched by keen psychological and emotional insight.

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“The Paris Wife” — Paula McLain’s 2011 historical novel about Hadley Richardson, Ernest Hemingway’s first wife — was a publishing phenomenon. Not only was it a bestseller, but it also helped propel a wave of popular historical fiction aimed at a female readership. (History books, whether fiction or nonfiction, are traditionally regarded as a male preserve. Anyone who doubts this wisdom need only watch for forthcoming history-heavy Father’s Day book promotions.) “The Paris Wife” and many of the popular historical novels that have followed, by writers like Marie Benedict, Melanie Benjamin and others, can be described as female-centered-but-not-explicitly-feminist.

McLain herself has gone on to mine the life of Hemingway wife No. 3, journalist Martha Gellhorn, as well as the British aviator, Beryl Markham, who, in 1936, became the first person to fly solo nonstop across the Atlantic from Britain to North America. McLain’s latest novel, however, renounces the rewards of the tried-and-true. “When the Stars Go Dark” is a suspense story, and the grim history it draws upon is McLain’s own, interwoven with the real-life kidnapping cases of several young girls in Northern California in the 1990s.

As she acknowledges in her author’s note at the end of the novel, as well as in her 2003 memoir, “Like Family,” McLain, along with her two sisters, grew up in a series of foster homes. McLain’s mother disappeared when she was 4, and her father spent intervals of time in jail. During the 14 years she spent in foster care, McLain endured sexual abuse. Anna Hart, the detective heroine in “When the Stars Go Dark,” is also a survivor of parental abandonment, the foster-care system and sexual abuse. Anna’s trauma has helped her in her police work of tracking down the monsters who brutalize children.

Having turned the last page of Paula McLain’s latest novel, I found myself almost wishing I’d read the author’s note first — spoilers and all — if only to appreciate from the outset the deep personal connections the writer, best known for “The Paris Wife,” has baked into this dark detective novel set in the early 1990s.

Detective Anna Hart flees her home in San Francisco to her native Mendocino, driven there in the wake of an unspeakable tragedy that leaves her with a raging case of mastitis and a freighter’s worth of emotional baggage. There, she becomes embroiled (or, more to the point, embroils herself) in a spate of cases involving missing girls — her specialty. Anna’s central focus is Cameron Curtis, the daughter of a former actress, whose disappearance bears a striking resemblance to the disappearance and murder of Jenny Ledford, a girl from Anna’s high school orbit.

What follows is a thoughtful exploration of the rippling impact of early trauma, perfect for true-crime aficionados and fans of “Law & Order: SVU” who find themselves eager to challenge the genre’s laser focus on perpetrator psychology over victimology.

Anna Hart, it turns out, is tailor-made both for cracking the case and for probing the book’s central themes. Her outspoken empathy feels downright refreshing in a fictional detective, and entirely believable because of the trauma in her own story: Anna’s mother overdosed on Christmas Eve, leaving behind a brood of kids, of whom Anna is the oldest. Though she tried to hide the absence of a grown-up in the apartment in order to keep the family together, one slip-up led to the children being separated.

After being shuffled from foster home to foster home, Anna landed with two loving foster parents who instilled in her a love of the perilous California landscape and survival skills to match, two things that will come in handy later. But even that storybook chapter veers into tragedy. If Anna’s own circumstances sound like a lot to keep track of, that’s because they are. A glut of names, places and time periods occasionally had me mentally scurrying to play catch-up, but ultimately didn’t distract from my desire to find out whodunit. Hang in there.

Anna uses her own painful history, including curiosity over the murder of her high school classmate, to decode how Cameron and the other missing girls “got drawn into the story in the first place, how certain sets of experiences made them vulnerable, and not just in a general way either but to the particular predators who targeted them.”

McLain is unflinching in her insistence that the study of the girls’ psyches is just as important to an investigation as profiling the bad guy. Anna refers to the hallmarks of early childhood trauma as “bat signals.” She asks an old friend, “We all come into the world with a pure bright light, right?” When he agrees, she goes on, “But then for some kids — one in 10, maybe, though it might be closer to one in four — really hard stuff happens to them, in their own family, or by an acquaintance whom that family trusts.” Anna explains how these kids don’t have the tools to process what they’ve been through, “so silence follows. Complicity. Shame,” and eventually every “psychopath, sociopath, sadist, alcoholic, narcissist” comes running.

Fair warning: Some readers may find this line of inquiry uncomfortable. But maybe that’s the point. Trauma, while hard to look at, does turn insidious when allowed to fester in the dark, unseen.

McLain’s prose is almost lyrical, especially when she turns to the untamed landscape of coastal California. But when it comes to descriptions of death, assault and abuse, she writes with measured restraint, a choice that forces the reader to accept these horrific events as grim reflections of our real world rather than gratuitous story machinations. In fact, McLain intentionally blurs the line between fact and fiction by braiding actual missing persons cases into the narrative, a touch that promptly sent me down several internet rabbit holes.

Book Club Questions


  1. Who do you believe is the true protagonist of the story?
  2. How do you think Anna’s childhood shaped her?


  1. What are the major turning points in the story?
  2. Our story takes place in Mendocino, CA. How does the setting shape this novel? How did McClain bring the small town and its surrounding woods to life for us?
  3. How was the pacing/structure (does it keep you engaged and are the stakes constantly escalating)?


  1. Did it work for you?
  2. What do you think is the author’s message to readers of When the Stars Go Dark? What did you take away from her book?


  1. Let’s talk about symbolism. What symbolism was used in the book?
  2. Blame and guilt are big themes in this book, as is redemption. How do these themes manifest throughout the novel? What other central themes are featured?


  1. Use one adjective to describe the writing itself.
  2. What would you change if you could rewrite When the Stars Go Dark?


  1. What did you love most about the book?