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Half Moon Bay

Review

Half Moon Bay

Few relationships survive the loss of a child. Jane O’Malley knows that all too well. After her teenage daughter, Angela, died in a car accident, her marriage --- along with the rest of her life --- imploded. Now, a year following the tragedy, her wounds are still raw, and she is haunted by guilt. In her fourth novel, a spare, tightly written work of psychological suspense, Alice LaPlante dives deep into the mind of this emotionally shattered woman, exposing the tricks that grief and loss can play on the mind.

Jane is, in her words, a “Bad mother. Doctoral program dropout. Failed wife. Stalker and harasser. Destroyer of property.” She has retreated from Berkeley, the site of her most recent personal disasters, to the quaint coastal community of Half Moon Bay. There, she tries to fashion a life of quiet anonymity, working in a nursery and holding herself at arm’s length from those around her. She is the kind of person who is friendly, but has no close friends.

"It’s the promise of a juicy murder mystery that will draw readers into this world... But it’s LaPlante’s emotionally resonant portrait of a broken woman struggling to find meaning in her radically altered life that will keep them turning the pages."

Jane’s fragile equilibrium is disrupted when a five-year-old girl vanishes from the beach near Half Moon Bay. “This will end in tears,” she thinks, with the bleakness of someone who has experienced a similar loss. It does. After the first child is discovered dead, several more go missing in quick succession, and the town residents --- and police --- cast around for someone to blame. Suspicion lands on Jane. The facts of her daughter’s death, and her own unbalanced behavior after the event, are gradually revealed. Is it possible that Jane is not a fellow traveler in grief but the orchestrator of it?

The only thing that gives Jane relief from the tragedy enveloping Half Moon Bay, and from the intrusive memories of Angela, is her growing infatuation with Edward and Alma, a pair of wealthy recent transplants who have set up shop to protest the construction of a seaside resort. At first, her relationship with the couple offers a respite from the darkness, but as she becomes addicted to their love and approval, it morphs into something more sinister. Edward, handsome with “a face that would heal wounds…a dark archangel,” and Alma, a “flesh-and-blood beauty,” are captivating but dangerous, slowly pulling Jane into their orbit.

LaPlante’s book is an engrossing character study disguised as a mystery. The details of the abductions and murders are sketchy, with just enough information provided to make them appropriately unsettling. (The killer positions the victims with almost loving care, and paints their doll-like faces with makeup after death.) Far more time is spent exploring Jane’s internal world, and LaPlante deftly deploys small details that reveal her protagonist’s state of mind. Much of Jane’s energy is expended on deliberate, if not always effective, attempts to stave off chaos and disorder. She uses an Excel spreadsheet to track her “madnesses” on a scale of 1 to 10. Her tiny cottage home is fitted up like a ship’s cabin, though she must work hard to keep her stuff from getting “out of hand.”

The novel is also a close look at the terrors of motherhood. For many of the women of HALF MOON BAY, being a parent isn’t a source of joy but of sorrow, and watching your children grow up is “a series of little deaths.” The love for a child is draining, leaving one character to describe herself as “tainted by love…exhausted by the constant loss that was motherhood.”

HALF MOON BAY’s coastal California setting is deployed to great effect. Jane’s nighttime walks on wild beaches and descriptions of maverick waves “seventy, eighty feet in height” suggest her own precarious position on the edge of reason. “This ocean a gray plate of water reaching out to infinity. Flat. This is what despair looks like,” Jane observes. The town is geographically close to San Francisco but a world apart, separated by crumbling cliffs, snaking mountain roads and hazardous fog.

It’s the promise of a juicy murder mystery that will draw readers into this world, just as it attracts the reporters and true crime bloggers who descend after the first disappearance, eager to embrace “dead child as clickbait.” But it’s LaPlante’s emotionally resonant portrait of a broken woman struggling to find meaning in her radically altered life that will keep them turning the pages.

Reviewed by Megan Elliott on July 13, 2018

Half Moon Bay
by Alice LaPlante