Book review and synopsis for When the Stars Go Dark by Paula McLain, a suspenseful and emotionally poignant detective novel about a woman coming to terms with her past.
Where the Stars Go Dark by Paula McLain is about a detective, Anna Hart, whose child has recently died. With her marriage falling apart, she goes home to Mendocino where she was raised by her adoptive parents.
There, she learns that a 15-year-old adoptive girl, Cameron, has just gone missing. Anna finds herself drawn into the case, and she's forced to confront her own past as she investigates.
In this suspenseful and serious novel, McLain details a complex police investigation while also telling a story about a woman making sense of the things that have happened to her.
(The Detailed Plot Summary is also available, below)
Detailed Plot SummarySection-by-Section SummarySee the Section-by-Section Summary of When the Stars Go DarkQuick Plot Summary
(The one-paragraph version of this: Anna Hart is a detective and a former foster kid whose child has recently died. She goes to home and gets involved in a case where an adopted 15-year-old, Cameron, has gone missing. Anna confronts her feelings about her own experience in foster care as she investigates. There's also two more cases involving missing girls that may be connected. Working alongside her childhood friend Will who is the town sheriff, they eventually learn that their other childhood friend Caleb is the predator. Caleb's sister Jenny went missing years ago, and it turns out Caleb killed her for wanting to leave town without him and has continued killing since.)
Anna Louise Hart is a detective who specializes in violent crimes against children. After the death of her own child, her marriage with her husband Brendon falls apart, and she returns to the place she considers home.
Anna is a former foster kid. When Anna was 8, her mother died of a heroin overdose. Anna was shuffled around to various homes until moving in with her loving adoptive parents, Hep and Eden, in Mendocino when she was 10. Meanwhile, her two younger half-siblings, Jason and Amy, had been sent to live with their absent mother. When Anna was sixteen, Eden died of cancer. Then, Hap disappeared, presumed dead, two months after Anna left for college.
As the book progresses, Anna struggles with the guilt of not being able to take care of her young siblings and the grief over the loss of the two adults who truly loved and protected her.
Upon her return to Mendocino, Anna hears of a 15-year-old girl, Cameron Curtis, who has gone missing. Cameron, too, is an adoptive child, and Anna finds herself drawn to the case. Cameron's parents are a movie star, Emily, and Hollywood producer, Troy. It's unclear if Cameron ran away willingly or was abducted.
The town Sheriff leading the investigation is Will Flood. His father, Ellis Flood, had been sheriff when Anna was a kid. Ellis and Hap had been close friends, so Anna and Will had been childhood best friends, along with two twin siblings Jenny and Caleb Ford. The twins' mother left when they were young, and their father was a neglectful alcoholic painter. Jenny eventually disappeared when she was 18 and was found dead 5 days later. Her death remains unsolved.
In present day, there are two more missing girls reported in the area. Polly Klaus, 12, was kidnapped in her home during a sleepover with two friends. The dramatic nature of the kidnapping turns Polly's story into national news, attracting a ton of resources, volunteers, and media attention. The other missing girl, Shannan Russo, 17, was very troubled. Shannan had left a note saying she was leaving. It was only when a local psychic, Tally Hollander, said that Shannan was dead that her mother had reported her missing, months later.
As the investigation continues, Anna picks up a stray dog that takes a liking to her and names it Cricket. Anna is hesitant with it at first because she feels uncomfortable and guilty around animals. The day of her adoptive mother Eden's funeral, Anna purposefully harmed her family's pet raven, out of grief, causing it to run away.
As Will and Anna look into all three disappearances, Will reveals that he has been obsessively trying to solve Jenny's death for the last 20 years. He has identified 6 other girls who went missing in the area around that time in 1973. (Will also tries to kiss Anna, but she still wants to save her marriage.)
Will and Anna come to the conclusion that Shannan and Cameron's disappearances are connected, but Polly's is not. When Shannan's body is found, they determine that they are looking for a single male, with some physical strength and likely with some experience in forestry or the military. They also learn that Cameron was sexually abused by Emily's father (and possibly her brother).
Tally's visions also prove to be true, and she becomes a source of support for Anna. Anna also tracks down Cameron's older biological brother, Hector, and Anna recognizes that he has similar feelings of guilt as she does regarding Jason and Amy when it comes to not being able to protect his sister.
Eventually, Anna helps to rally community support to find Cameron. To do so, Cameron's best friend Gray brings in photo of Cameron, including one of her modeling for the camera. Anna gets the idea that perhaps Cameron wanted to model and finds a posting on a billboard for models. The phone number traces back to an artist studio which turns out to be rented out by Caleb.
The discovery leads to a confession by Caleb for Cameron's abduction, but he then escapes, though they're able to find a shelter in the woods where Caleb had been keeping her. After a long search, Anna finds Cameron alive, while the manhunt for Caleb drags on. They search his place and find many photos of girls, all of whom resemble Jenny, and Anna wonders how many victims there really were.
Finally, a few days later Caleb shows up in Anna's cabin with a knife. He admits that, back when they were 18, Jenny had wanted to leave town. He wasn't able to convince her to take him with her, and he killed her in anger over it. He then continued killing girls like her (to gain a sense of power over his feelings of abandonment and neglect -- by his parents, but by his sister most of all).
After a struggle, Anna shoots and kills Caleb, though he injures Cricket in the process. Afterwards, Tally suggests that it's time for Anna to return to her family, since her 7-month-old son Matthew still needs her. Anna explains that left because of an accident she caused. Anna left her 2-year-old daughter Sarah in a car to take a work call, and Sarah manaed to crawl out and was run over.
By the time the book closes, Anna has spent about a month in total in Mendocino. Will is hopeful that they will eventually solve the rest of the 1973 murders someday, and they part as friends. Anna is also starting to understand how to "carry" the things that have happened in her life, and she heads home with Cricket.
For more detail, see the full Section-by-Section Summary.