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When the Stars Go Dark

By Paula McLain

Book review, full book summary 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 Full Plot Summary is also available, below)

Full Plot Summary

Section-by-Section Summary
See the Section-by-Section Summary of When the Stars Go Dark
Quick 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.

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Book Review

When the Stars Go Dark is author Paula McLain’s first foray into writing a thriller. She’s known for her historical fiction titles, most notably The Paris Wife, which is about Hemingway and his wife Hadley.

Pretty much all of her other novels have covers that are adorned in bright colors, pastels, and happy, fashionable women. This book…is not that. It’s dark, emotional and gritty. At its center is an investigation into three missing girls in Northern California.

As is typically the case with stories where the main character is a detective, When the Stars Go Dark has a strong police procedural feel to it. Our protagonist, Detective Anna Hart, specializes in violent crimes against children.

Author Paula McLain was a former foster child and a survivor of sexual abuse, and the consequences of that — the trauma, the feelings of abandonment or guilt, and the path to recovery — are the themes that resonate throughout this book. The emotions she writes about are raw and intimate.

This book leaves you with no doubt that many of the thoughts and feelings attached to the scenes it describes are coming from the author’s lived experience. And it gives such a depth to the character of Anna that it really draws you into her story. To be honest, it almost feels like I’m devaluing her by referring to her as a “character” since she feels so real.

I wish this was a book I could have read earlier. I had a friend a while back who really struggled with being adopted, even as an adult, but I never really knew what to say to her about it. After reading this, I feel like we could have had a much more productive conversation about the things she struggled with.

As you might expect, this is not some flighty thriller. McLain takes her subject matter seriously and this book focuses a lot on the psychological effects of being raised in foster care as well as criminal psychology. Consequently, it makes for fairly dark reading, but the substance behind it also helps to mold it into a very coherent story.

Some (Minor) Criticisms

I thought this was a solid book, and I’m glad I read it. The things I’d nit-pick about it weren’t at all deal-breakers for me.

There were some aspects of the story that didn’t seem incorporated into the narrative as thoroughly as I would have liked. The stuff about the dog, about Tally the local psychic, about the deaths of the protagonist’s adoptive parents — it all seemed like McLain wasn’t as sure-footed about what she wanted to say about it.

When it comes to the stuff she’s sure about, McLain writes very unflinchingly and precisely about the meanings and messages she’s trying to impart. About some of this other stuff, there’s some type of vague notion that these things are important to the protagonist without really saying that much.

As you might expect, the parts where she has something to say are the parts that the book really delivers. The good news is, those parts are strong enough to make up for the weaker areas.

Another issue for me was that at various points the missing persons case progresses forward due to things like visions or sudden premonitions. I didn’t love it. It felt a little like an overly convenient narrative device to me.

If it was once or twice and in a way that was meaningful, I could understand that more, but it seemed like too much of the book hinged upon these premonitions. I’m not opposed to elements of mysticism or the “unknown” in books, but this started to feel like a shortcut in lieu of actual plotting.

That said, the plotting of the investigation is really not the point of the book, so it’s something I think most people would look past.

Read it or Skip it?

Overall, I think When the Stars Go Dark is a well-written, purposeful and emotionally real book. I know I personally got something out of reading it. It combines a page-turner atmosphere with such careful insight and substance about the things it cares about.

Fans of mystery-suspense novels should be warned that, while fairly fast-paced and suspenseful, this is not a fun, breezy thriller. Instead, it’s dark and raw novel that takes the form of a police procedural, and it deals seriously with its themes of trauma and shame, the psychology of sex crimes and the mentality of kids that go through adoption and the foster care system.

I think it’s well worth a read as long as you are in the right mindset for it and know what you’re getting into. I would give this a strong recommendation for people who are looking for a suspense novel that deals thoughtfully with the emotions and psychology behind criminals and victims.

If you liked Liz Moore’s Long Bright River, which is also a literary-ish thriller, I think you’ll love this book. Between the two, I’d recommend When the Stars Go Dark, for its faster pace and more precise insights (and because it has proper punctuation).

See When the Stars Go Dark on Amazon.

When the Stars Go Dark Audiobook

Narrated by: Marin Ireland
Length: 11 hours 28 minutes

Hear a sample of the When the Stars Go Dark audiobook on

Discussion Questions

  1. In what ways do you think author Paula McLain’s personal experiences — as someone who has been through the foster case system and who is a survivor of sexual abuse — inform this book?
  2. Anna describes herself as someone who gets swallowed whole by her work. Why do you think she cares so deeply about these cases?
  3. As a kid, why do you think Hap’s survival skills lessons appeal so much to Anna? In what ways does her relationships with Hap and Eden shape her as a person?
  4. In what ways did you think Anna’s childhood (with her mother and two half-siblings) shaped her as a person?
  5. In what ways does Anna identify with Cameron, and why do you think Anna gets drawn into this case?
  6. Why do you think Anna hurts Lenore as a kid, and what do you think it says about the final scene of the book where the raven is standing on the statue? Why do you think Anna adopts Cricket?
  7. In what ways are Anna and Hector similar or different? Why do you think Anna reacts so strongly to his story?
  8. What parts of this novel spoke to you the most? Is there something in particular that you feel you gained or learned from reading it?
  9. Why do you think McLain introduces Tally as a character, and to what extent do you think her visions contribute or detract from the narrative?
  10. What did you think of the ending of the book? Did the situations resolve in a way that you thought was satisfying or in a way that made sense to you? For example, what did you think of Emily staying with Troy? Or, what did you think of Tally saying Polly’s death “won’t be for nothing” because it changes things about how they look for the missing going forward?
  11. The novel involves three separate investigations of three separate missing girls. How did these investigations differ and why do you think they were treated so differently?
  12. What did you think of Caleb’s motivations for his actions, both in the past and the present? Did they make sense to you and why do you think things turned out like this for him?
  13. Based on what we know about Anna’s marriage, do you think she’ll be able to save it? Do you think McLain gives us any indication one way or another?

Book Excerpt

Read the first pages of When the Stars Go Dark

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