When the Stars Go Dark by Paula McLain ★★★★☆ #BookReview #BookBlog

Primary Genre(s): Mystery, Thriller, Crime Drama
Published: 12 April 2021 by Ballantine Books
Page count: 384 (print length)
My Format: eBook via NetGalley (ARC)
Cover: Haunting
Pacing: Good
Ending: Realistic
Do I Recommend: Yes
Commission Link (U.S.): Buy When the Stars Go Dark

My rating: ★★★★☆

Anna Hart is a seasoned missing persons detective in San Francisco with far too much knowledge of the darkest side of human nature. When overwhelming 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 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 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.

My Thoughts
I have a friend who is an advocate for missing persons. She has her own non-profit organization that helps families navigate the myriad events, processes, and requirements involved when searching for missing persons. This book piqued my interest because it made me think about my friend. Here are my pros and cons for When the Stars Go Dark:


  1. It is hard not to get emotionally involved when you are talking about missing persons, particularly when they are children. This book is no exception. Whether you get upset, angry, sad, distraught, fearful, or experience any other number of feelings, you will at least feel something.
  2. I appreciated that the book included a real-life missing person case. Although I was in college at the time and not very focused on the news, I still recall hearing about Polly Klaas and her abduction. I think including her story, even peripherally, gave this story gravitas and a bit of a non-fiction feel. The true story element made the fiction feel more authentic.
  3. I loved how the author treated the missing children with dignity. Yes, some young girls could be more careful about where they go, who they hang out with, and the things they get involved with. They still never deserve to be kidnapped, harmed, or murdered. Period. Anna (the detective) never victim blames. As a matter of fact, she actively rejects it.
  4. I loved Anna’s backstory and her relationship with her foster dad in particular was really wonderful.
  5. I thought the storyline about the missing girl from Anna’s past was an interesting bookend to the present day narrative.
  6. There are three stories going on at once in this book – Anna’s personal life (both past and present), an unsolved missing person case in Anna’s past (before she was a detective), and multiple missing person cases in the present. All three plot lines were seamlessly woven together.
  7. The ending was realistic.


  1. I actually found the book to a bit confusing and quite boring until about the 25% mark. There were too many references to events in Anna’s life that the reader knows nothing about, along with long meandering paragraphs that just didn’t seem to go anywhere. Facts do start to emerge eventually making all this front matter make a bit more sense, but I felt it took a little too much time to get to the meat of the story.
  2. There are some remarkably beautiful sentences in this book… that say absolutely nothing. I made the following note while reading: Individual sentences are absolutely stunning, but collectively in paragraphs/pages they aren’t really saying anything. I primarily noted this in the first quarter of the book (see Con #1).

It feels odd to say I enjoyed a book about missing girls. There truly is nothing positive about that. But this story, once it got past an awkward beginning (in my opinion), was really good. The story was very serious and there was a lot of despair, fear, and anger. It is often hard to read. But it was also full of kindness, caring, hope, and love. I think this book also provided an interesting perspective on the stress and heartache detectives go through when searching for and finding missing persons.

I do recommend this book. I’ve only read one other book by this author – The Paris Wife – which I also enjoyed. The two books are very different from one another and I think it is quite a talent to successfully write books in multiple genres (in this case mystery/crime thriller versus historical fiction).

If you are interested in the non-profit organization operated by my friend (mentioned above) here is the link:  Missing Person Support Center (mpsupportcenter.org).

Thank you NetGalley and Ballantine Books for providing an ebook, which I have reviewed honestly and voluntarily.

If you would like to read this book and form your own opinion, please consider purchasing through this link: Buy When the Stars Go Dark. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases at no extra cost to you. Thanks!

Click here for a description of my rating scale.

(image from Goodreads)

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