When the Stars Go Dark: A Novel (Hardcover)

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This article appeared in the New York Times, and was written by Elisabeth Egan. It's fantastic.

If you talk to enough writers, you’ll notice a theme of books and words as saviors. You’ll hear how a meaningful novel landed, at just the right moment, in the hands of a person who was alone and scared; how a humble ballpoint pen became a microphone, a stage, a shield or a sword.
For Paula McLain, the author of “The Paris Wife” and four other novels, including her new one, “When the Stars Go Dark,” which Ballantine will publish on April 13, stories were the bridge out of a childhood spent in foster care. Her mother left when she was 4; her father was in and out of jail.
“Writing was the way I kicked like hell for the surface when I couldn’t breathe. I was trying to find words for things there aren’t words for,” McLain, 55, said during a video interview from her home in Cleveland, where she lives with her teenage daughter and son; an older son lives in Denver.
For more than a decade, beginning in 1969, McLain and her sisters — one younger, one older — bounced from placement to placement in California, enduring sexual abuse, corporal punishment, neglect and the daily discombobulation of never feeling properly cared for.
She describes this period with a disarmingly cheerful tone, but her recollections pack a punch. “My childhood was like a war that wouldn’t end,” she said. “I didn’t feel safe in my body. I didn’t see a way out or a way through. I was ashamed of my story; it seemed to point to something terribly wrong with me.”
At each new school she attended, McLain brought her lunch to the one place where she knew she would find a kindred spirit: the library. “We moved so much, I didn’t feel it was safe to make friends with actual kids,” she said, “so I always made friends with librarians. And then I made friends with books.”
She devoured tales of survival, including “Watership Down,” “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” and fairy tales by Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm. “I was trying to find a path out of the woods,” McLain said. “Characters became my friends and my guideposts.”
After high school, McLain got a job in a nursing home and put herself through college with the help of a California program that allowed students to go to community college for $50 plus the cost of books. “I had no bank account,” she said. “I lived with my sisters, and we were well below the poverty line. We had no furniture.”
In a phone interview, McLain’s older sister, Teresa Reed, said, “When you grow up the way we did, you don’t think you’re going to achieve something that’s unobtainable. So it’s not like I looked at Paula and thought, ‘You’re going to be this amazing novelist.’ But she was always writing, always doing poetry, always in a book. And she wrote all my term papers.”
McLain was a divorced mother of a toddler when she borrowed $35,000 to get her M.F.A. in poetry at the University of Michigan. “I had no idea how I was going to pay that money back,” she said.
After finishing the program, she taught high school in Vermont, waited tables in Wisconsin and wrote in her free time. In 2003, she was living in Ohio and preparing to discuss “A Moveable Feast” with a memoir class at a local college when an idea came to her “like a bolt of electricity”: to write about Hemingway’s bohemian Paris from the point of view of his first wife, Hadley Richardson. She quit three part-time teaching jobs, planted herself at a Starbucks, and, as she put it in an email, “wrote my face off.”
When “The Paris Wife” was published in 2011, it became as ubiquitous on the best-seller list as its characters were in Left Bank cafes, lingering for 31 weeks on the hardcover fiction list and 35 weeks on the trade paperback list. There are now more than 2 million copies in print. “‘The Paris Wife’ is why I can afford bookshelves instead of ramen,” McLain said. She went on to write two more best sellers based on the lives of real women — Beryl Markham in “Circling the Sun” and Martha Gellhorn in “Love and Ruin.” She viewed her work as a feminist act, a way to give depth and dimension to “unclaimed, missed women.”
But one day in the fall of 2017, McLain was walking her goldendoodle, Piper, around a local pond when she had an idea for a different kind of story — a suspenseful one — that morphed into “When the Stars Go Dark.”
“I pictured this troubled missing persons detective who becomes obsessed with a girl who goes missing in a town that meant something to her when she was a kid,” McLain said. “Before I got home, I could see the whole thing.”
McLain’s latest main character is Anna Hart, a San Francisco detective who grew up in foster care and is on the run from a mysterious horrific event. She lands in Mendocino, Calif., and is drawn into the search for a girl whose disappearance gives her an unnerving sense of déjà vu. Sexual abuse is a theme; so is the hangover of a rootless childhood.
In an author’s note, McLain explains her decision to set the book in 1993, a time that was “pre-DNA, pre-cellphone, before the internet had exploded and ‘CSI’ had laypeople thinking they could solve a murder with their laptop.” But when she started digging into the research, she realized that there had been real-life abductions in California at that time — including the kidnapping of 12-year-old Polly Klaas from her Petaluma bedroom. McLain weaves Klaas’s tragic story into the novel, reminding the reader of yet another young woman who never had a chance to shine.
Eventually, McLain shared a draft of “When the Stars Go Dark” with a friend who pointed out that she was writing about her childhood. McLain admitted that this novel is “more intimate and tells the truth more than my memoir.”
That memoir was “Like Family” (2003), which described McLain’s experience growing up in other people’s houses. “In a way it’s like a hotel because nothing belongs to you,” she wrote. “It’s all being lent, like library books: the bed, the toothbrush, the bath water, the night-light under the medicine cabinet that will help you recognize your own face at 2 a.m.”
Publishers Weekly described the memoir as a “brave account, evidently cathartic for the author and occasionally difficult for the reader.” McLain’s sister Reed said reading it was “like a shot of whiskey.”
McLain remains fond of “Like Family” but now admits that she hid behind symbolism while writing the most painful chapters of her story. With “When the Stars Go Dark,” she was four drafts in before she shared the manuscript with her publisher.
She worried that her team would think she was “nuts,” she said, to jump off the historical-fiction shelf where she’d made a name for herself. Ballantine’s president Kara Welsh said in a phone interview that she believes McLains’s readers will follow her — and that her candor will pick up new readers as well.
“Paula crafts these beautifully flawed characters,” Welsh said. “She put a lot of herself and her own story into this book, and I think that translates to the reader.”
Reed said McLain asked her if she was ready to be “outed again” as a survivor of abuse. “I just said, ‘If you’re brave enough, sweetie, I’m brave enough,” Reed said.
As McLain put it: “Why not go ahead and rip the tape off? Why not tell the stories that matter?”

When the Stars Go Dark by bestselling author and friend of McLean & Eakin (multiple events!), Paula McLain has departed from historical fiction (The Paris Wife and Circling the Sun), and dropped a stunning psychological crime novel that is atmospheric in its refereces to a true-life abduction and real experience in the foster care system during similar time periods and locations.
Anna Hart is a successful and experienced missing-persons detective in San Francisco suddenly traumatized by her own parent's-worst-nightmare when her daughter is abducted. Hoping to find anonymity and solace, she eventually moves to Mendocino, the only place she felt at home with her foster parents growing up.  But her escape coincides with a recent disappearance, and she is drawn into the investigation (unofficially) by local law enforcement – and another abduction occurs shortly thereafter.   As she becomes obsessed with the cases, she feels they could be tied to similar unsolved tragedies from her childhood.
With poetic ease, Paula creates characters with issues, flaws, and strengths they never realized or valued.  They feel personal, as does the time and place.  Probably because, to an extent, they are.   The heart of this story and McLain's writing chops are apparent from the beginning to the end of this book.

— From Karen McCue

April 2021 Indie Next List

“No matter what the genre, McLain is a masterful storyteller. Her protagonist in this latest novel is one of the most authentic and powerful characters I have ever experienced. Anna Hart, a missing persons detective, shares not only her knowledge as an expert on missing children but she lays bare her own personal demons as she struggles to find a teen who has disappeared. I was captivated from page one and couldn’t stop until I finished this intense and provocative story. Absolutely mesmerizing!”
— Stephanie Crowe, Page and Palette, Fairhope, AL


NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • GOOD MORNING AMERICA BUZZ PICK • “A total departure for the author of The Paris Wife, McLain’s emotionally intense and exceptionally well-written thriller entwines its fictional crime with real cases.”—People (Book of the Week)
“The kind of heart-pounding conclusion that thriller fans crave . . . In the end, a book full of darkness lands with a message of hope.”—The New York Times Book Review
“This mystery will keep you guessing, and stay with you long after you finish. Dive in.”—theSkimm

Anna Hart is a seasoned missing persons detective in San Francisco with far too much knowledge of the darkest side of human nature. When tragedy strikes her personal life, Anna, desperate and numb, flees to the Northern California village of Mendocino to grieve. She lived there as a child with her beloved foster parents, and now she believes it might be the only place left for her. Yet the day she arrives, she learns that a local teenage girl has gone missing.

The crime feels frighteningly reminiscent of the most crucial time in Anna’s childhood, when the unsolved murder of a young girl touched Mendocino and changed the community forever. As past and present collide, Anna realizes that she has been led to this moment. The most difficult lessons of her life have given her insight into how victims come into contact with violent predators. As Anna becomes obsessed with saving the missing girl, she must accept that true courage means getting out of her own way and learning to let others in.

Weaving together actual cases of missing persons, trauma theory, and a hint of the metaphysical, this propulsive and deeply affecting novel tells a story of fate, necessary redemption, and what it takes, when the worst happens, to reclaim our lives—and our faith in one another.

About the Author

Paula McLain is the New York Times bestselling author of the novels Love and Ruin, Circling the Sun, The Paris Wife, and A Ticket to Ride, the memoir Like Family: Growing Up in Other People's Houses, and two collections of poetry. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, Good Housekeeping, O: The Oprah Magazine, Town & Country, The Guardian, The Huffington Post, and elsewhere. She lives in Ohio with her family.

Praise For…

“McLain puts her heroine in mortal peril to deliver the kind of heart-pounding conclusion that thriller fans crave. . . . In the end, a book full of darkness lands with a message of hope.”—The New York Times Book Review

“Fueled by pure high anxiety . . . When the Stars Go Dark is an atmospheric and intricately plotted suspense novel.”The Washington Post

“This mystery will keep you guessing, and stay with you long after you finish. Dive in.”theSkimm

“A total departure for the author of The Paris Wife, McLain’s emotionally intense and exceptionally well-written thriller entwines its fictional crime with real cases.”People, “Book of the Week”

“The twisty plot keeps the pages flying, and Paula McLain’s lyrical and poetic prose reveals insight after insight about the human heart, making this riveting read not only an engrossing psychological thriller, but crime fiction of the highest order.”—Lisa Scottoline, author of Someone Knows

When the Stars Go Dark is a beautifully written, sharply observed literary thriller with an extraordinary, unforgettable heroine. An unflinching look at the long shadow cast by trauma and the resilience it takes to survive, this is a novel of both great sadness and great beauty.”—Kristin Hannah, author of The Four Winds

“Paula McLain has created a vulnerable, intelligent, unforgettable protagonist whose interior life is as interesting as the mysteries she has to solve. When the Stars Go Dark is my favorite kind of book. I’ll recommend it far and wide.”—Liz Moore, author of Long Bright River

“Lyrical and beautiful . . . a riveting deep dive into trauma, survival, and obsession. With her deeply flawed and utterly compelling heroine, elegant prose, and layered, twisting story, Paula McLain has penned an extraordinary novel of literary suspense, as gripping as it is unique and unforgettable.”—Lisa Unger, author of Confessions on the 7:45

“With this breathtaking novel, Paula McLain proves she can do anything. Exquisitely written, immersive, and atmospheric, When the Stars Go Dark is a tour de force of literary suspense.”—Christina Baker Kline, author of The Exiles

“Paula McLain, already established as the master of the historical novel, now explodes into crime fiction with a richly satisfying, tremendously moving mystery—haunting, poignant, lyrical, urgent.”—Chris Pavone, author of The Paris Diversion

“Fantastically propulsive and deeply atmospheric, this novel grabs you from the very first page. Paula McLain has proven to be a masterful storyteller no matter the genre.”—Aimee Molloy, author of The Perfect Mother

“This melancholy but gripping tale uses backstory and flashbacks to propel the mystery forward. Part suspense, part self-discovery tale, this first attempt at crime fiction from historical fiction author McLain (The Paris Wife) is hard to resist. Fans of the author’s other works will not be disappointed.”Library Journal

“[A] stunning crime novel . . . McLain matches poetic prose with deep characterizations as she shines a light on the kindness in her characters’ souls. Fans of literary suspense won’t be able to put this one down.”Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Product Details
ISBN: 9780593237892
ISBN-10: 0593237897
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Publication Date: April 13th, 2021
Pages: 384
Language: English


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