When The Stars Go Dark: superb writing with fascinating characters is enough to make a reluctant reader recommend this novel.
As a matter of personal preference, I shy away from books about serial killers, child molestation, and sexual abuse. I made an exception, however, for Paula McLain’s When the Stars Go Dark. In the past several years, I have reviewed three of her novels for “Bookin’ with Sunny,” so I assumed I’d like When the Stars Go Dark every bit as much as I appreciated The Paris Wife, Love and Ruin, and Circling the Sun. I did, and I didn’t. McLain’s writing is superb, with fascinating characters, incredible settings, and compelling dialogue. But the topic she chose did not appeal to me at all!
The When the Stars Go Dark narrative voice explains why:
“Mothers and fathers are supposed to stay. That’s the original human story, in every culture, since the beginning of time. Mine hadn’t, and neither had Cameron’s. All the scars I still carry, she carries, too. Trust issues, attachment trouble, identity problems, feelings of emptiness, isolation, alienation, and despair—cracks in the soul that can’t be mended. I’ve seen it. I’ve lived it. How anyone with a hole inside them will search on and on, sometimes all their lives, for ways to fill it.”
Anna Hart is a damaged soul. Raised in foster care and clearly the victim of multiple traumas, she is nonetheless likable, relatable, and reliable. In an effort to assuage her past, she pursues her chosen career as a missing persons detective. That’s what she is doing in When the Stars Go Dark, working with the police to find Cameron Curtis, a fifteen-year-old who has gone missing from her family home. As Anna tries to put together the pieces of Cameron’s childhood, the reader learns portions of Anna’s childhood as well. And, at the same time, we learn about similar cases, past and present, in and about coastal towns north of San Francisco.
Nearly every page is painful to read. Some of the cases are real, gleaned from eyewitness and newspaper accounts. Anna’s own history, however, is a product of McLain’s imagination, as is the story of Cameron and her abduction. Those tales take place in the years before DNA testing and the internet, so the policing leads to dead ends, impasses, even mistaken identities. The connective tissue is Mendocino, where Anna spent her high school years and where Cameron now resides. Here is where McLain’s writing is perceptively astute. The setting plays a predominant role in both Anna’s past and in Cameron’s present. McLain describes the foggy shores and mossy woodlands in pitch perfect terms, all while incorporating certain scenes in her narrative arc. I always admire novels with a strong sense of place, and When the Stars Go Dark is most satisfying.
But the beautiful settings and powerful writing didn’t, for me, make up for the horrors of the plot lines, for the incessant repetition of “trust issues, attachment trouble, identity problems, feelings of isolation, isolation, alienation, and despair.” The author’s note at the end of the novel states what I had surmised, that the subject matter of When the Stars Go Dark stems from Paula McLain’s own experiences, that she is indeed writing from her own heart and soul. Many “Bookin’” readers will find their own hearts and souls in this novel, too. Because of that, and despite my own personal reservations, I have to recommend it. – Ann Ronald
Also available by Paula McLain: Love and Ruin; Circling the Sun; The Paris Wife; Like Family; A Ticket to Ride.
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