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Half Moon Bay

A Novel


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About The Book

“An eerie, tense, and finely written novel…Readers will grip their chairs” ( as they try to unravel this tale of psychological suspense from the award-winning New York Times bestselling author of Turn of Mind.

Jane loses everything when her teenage daughter is killed in a senseless accident. Devastated, she manages to make one tiny stab at a new life: she moves from San Francisco to the seaside town of Half Moon Bay. Jane is inconsolable, and yet, as the months go by, she is able to cobble together some version of a job, of friends, of the possibility of peace.

And then, children begin to disappear. And soon, Jane sees her own pain reflected in all the parents in the town. She wonders if she will be able to live through the aching loss, the fear all around her. And as the disappearances continue, she begins to see that what her neighbors are wondering is if it is Jane herself who has unleashed the horror of loss.

Alice LaPlante’s “well-crafted novel of psychological suspense” is a chilling story about a mother haunted by her past, a “brooding suspense novel…dark, starkly beautiful…LaPlante uses a seductively dangerous landscape to mirror her heroine’s inner life” (Kirkus Reviews).


Half Moon Bay

Six p.m. Fog. Impenetrable, but not cold. Balmy, like Hawaii. That red cottage on the south side of Kauai, near Princeville. Shrouded by eucalyptus, so pungent after rain. Cockroaches scuttled when you pulled back the shower curtain. Where Jane and Rick and Angela stayed their last Christmas. The last year. The last vacation. Last things. So many last things.

As Jane steps outside into the Northern California evening, the fog’s moist veil slaps her face, temporarily obscuring her vision. Dark things loom. Trees, cars. Jane takes off her jacket and tosses it back inside her cottage. The door closes with a click. She doesn’t lock it behind her. No one does, here.

Jane can’t see the ocean from her cottage, but she can hear it and, most important, smell it. She leaves her bedroom windows open when she leaves the house so that when she returns, her pillows are damp and scented of seaweed. Of crabs and fish. Of the larger, mysterious things that swim in the depths. One of the reasons she moved here, to be closer to the sea, that deep insistent body of possibilities. Probabilities.

* * *

Once upon a time there was a woman. Actually, just a girl, when it begins. One of a family of ten children—first seven girls, then two boys, then a female caboose on the end. Jane is Number 3. Tragedy awaits, but she does not know it. She is being prepared. Everything in her life is building toward this moment. As she is hurt, as she is torn apart, she puts herself in a state of suspension, anything to dull the pain. This is not true, she says; this is not my life. It is her life.

* * *

Jane’s cell phone rings from within the cottage. She’d set the ring-tone, in a fit of rage one day, on the Dies Irae and never changed it back. The day of wrath. One of her sisters probably. Or a friend from Berkeley, checking in. Her people. Her community. Worried about her, as they should be. But no contact tonight. No.

* * *

Jane is haunted. Ghosts touch her but deign not to speak. She wakes up in the middle of the night, cold fingers on her shoulder. Others on her arm. The laying on of hands, not to cure but to blame.

* * *

Jane walks toward the sea, avoiding the surfers’ beach that borders Route 1. Despite the fog and the hour, two or three fanatically fit young men will inevitably be catching waves, sleek as seals in their glistening black suits. Instead, she heads over to Mavericks Beach, the home, when conditions are right, of towering eighty-foot waves, recently discovered by the international surfing set, a place so cool that Apple named an operating system after it. Jane’s go-to place when she is in extremis.

It has now been one year, two weeks, and two days. She can calculate the hours too, if asked. Nobody asks. Nobody refers to it, out of . . . ? Kindness? Courtesy? Fear? It should be fear, fear of wakening the beast smoldering inside Jane.

Jane puts one foot in front of the other. That’s how it works for her these days. The fog so thick she can see only a yard ahead, but she knows every step of this route. Right foot. Left foot. Right foot again. She loses herself in the rhythm. Nothing but the muffled sound of her own steps for a quarter of an hour as she winds through the industrial district of Princeton-by-the-Sea. She is nearing her destination. She can smell the rotting seaweed, hear the plaintive calls of the ringtail harriers from the marsh. Then she stops. Something is wrong. Red and blue lights flicker through the mist. Voices, both men’s and women’s, jumbled and unintelligible. A crackling sound, as of an untuned radio.

* * *

Jane had lost people before. Joshua, her postcollege boyfriend. She noticed the lesions first. A beautiful bruised purple. Aubergine. On his back and his thighs. And then how thin he was getting. She’d originally thought he was looking good, more fit. She’d even complimented him. But the constant illnesses, colds, flus. And those lesions. One day she woke up before he did. He had his back to her. She couldn’t see his face, but from the wasted body, she understood that she lay next to a dying man. How could she not have known? Her tears wet his shoulder blades, sticking out of his thin back like chicken wings. He had been so kind to her. She had felt safe with him, even loved. It wasn’t until later that it occurred to her that she had been betrayed. She didn’t feel betrayed but bereft. She might have known that this beautiful gift of this beautiful boy would have strings attached. Oh, Janey, he’d said. Oh, Jane, don’t cry. But he had been crying himself.

* * *

A police car, she can see as it comes into focus. Its lights flashing. White with black geometric markings. And another. And another. A dark figure approaches, grows darker and more substantial as it gets closer.

May I help you, ma’am? When did she turn from a miss into a ma’am? The shift has been imperceptible. Yet it has happened. Maiden, mother, crone. She is no longer either of the first two, so that leaves the final stage. At thirty-nine, her red hair glints gray in direct light.

What’s going on? Jane asks. Even her voice is muffled by the fog.

The figure comes closer. It is wearing a hat, a uniform with a badge on it. It is male, as she should have known from the voice. But somehow that surprises her. What did she expect? Something not quite of this earth. A hobgoblin. Bugbear. But this man seems solid, human. A policeman. The bearer of bad news.

It’s a search party. You live near here?

A silly question. No one lives near Mavericks. To reach it, you have to wind your way through the acres of rusting warehouses and grounded boats Jane has just navigated.

Over there. Jane motions with her head in the general direction of her cottage.

You know the McCreadys, then?

Just the name, Jane says. She tries to conjure up faces, fails.

They live up on the hill. He points into the darkness.

Oh. That explains it. Hill people. They’re different. In another life, Jane would have been one of them. They live in the new houses clinging precipitously to the steep hill above Princeton-by-the-Sea. The ornate ones painted to look like Victorians from the last century. With balconies no one stepped onto, lounge chairs no one sat in. Hill people were the prosperous professionals: the doctors and lawyers and engineers who commuted every day over the hill to Silicon Valley. Another world from here, the San Mateo coast. Although it’s a small community, Jane isn’t on speaking terms with any of the people who live up the hill. Most of them belong to a different species altogether, with their business suits and BMWs that roar off at 7:00 a.m. to make it over Route 92 to Sunnyvale or Milpitas by the start of the workday. Programmers and project managers. Financial analysts, accountants. Men and women who spend more time on the road than at home. People capable of organizing their thoughts into logical code, Gantt charts of responsibility, and numbers that add up. Ambiguity banished from their lives during the day. Then back here, to the rolling sea and amorphous fog. A strange existence. It takes a certain kind of person to juggle the contrasts. Jane knows she sounds scornful, but really she is envious. They have found balance.

What about the McCreadys?

Their little girl, Heidi. She’s wandered away.

Jane considers. Why are you looking here? she asks. It seems an implausible place and time.

This was her favorite spot. She’d been here with her parents this afternoon. The little girl lost her magic pebble. They thought she might have come back to look for it.

Jane considers. Magic pebbles. It hurts to remember. Magic string, magic pencils, even magic bugs. Jane had fixed up a cardboard box to contain the spiders and the roly-polies Angela captured from under the porch, but they all skittered away through the cracks. Jane’s heart breaking to see Angela’s tears of irrevocable loss. A child’s grief, never to be trivialized.

How old was she? Jane asks.


Angela didn’t speak until she was five. Jane and Rick had taught her sign language and communicated with their hands. Eat. More? All gone. Then, suddenly, out came everything in full sentences. Angela had kept it all inside until she burst. She learned that from Jane.

A long way to walk for a five-year-old, Jane says.

A missing girl. Police. This will end badly. Such things always end badly.

Your name? The policeman has taken out a pad. A pen. He looks at Jane, or at least she thinks he’s looking at her. The fog so thick he no longer has a face.


Your last name, ma’am?

O’Malley. Why is Jane so reluctant to give this information? She feels as though she is confessing to something, that he is writing an indictment with his pen right now.

And what are you doing here?

Just walking, Jane says, but it doesn’t sound convincing. Alone, in the dark, in the fog, without a coat or a flashlight, striding along, hands in pockets. She should have brought her landlord’s dog. No one questions you when you’re walking a dog.

I’ll be heading home now, she says, in a voice that sounds deceitful, even to her.

You do that, ma’am, agrees the policeman, but she sees him circle her name on his pad before he turns away.

But Jane doesn’t go home. Instead, she takes a few steps before doubling back and heading toward the sea. She circumvents the official vehicles and walks the dirt path alongside the base of the cliff. Even here she’s not alone. Scores of flashlight beams scan the sand, the bay, the breakwater. The fog is now floating high above her head, wispy threads that glow in the light of the unblocked moon. If Jane were a child, this is exactly the kind of night she’d wander off, excited by the proximity of the sea and the moonlit strands of fog. She’d go straight into this enclosure between the fog and the sand. Straight toward the water. To sink in. To give in. Don’t think she hasn’t considered it.

A seabird calls. Another answers. The sea glows, gives off its own undulating light. Jane sees black heads, unblinking eyes, staring at her from the water. Seals. Selkies. The Celts thought them capable of taking on human form. If a woman wishes contact with a selkie male, she must shed seven tears into the sea. If a man steals a female selkie’s skin, she is forced to become his wife. Selkie women make excellent wives but will always long for the sea. They will abandon everything—home, husband, and, especially, children—if given the chance to return to it.

The fog miraculously clears for a moment, and the stars are so clear Jane can see them twinkle. The air still. Satellites that carry voices and texts crawl slowly across the sky. The moon, full. You must be by the water on such nights. It is best to touch it. Bare flesh to cold water. Jane did this when Angela was small, only then it was the bay, not the ocean. The Golden Gate Bridge shining in the distance as they did their moon dances. Jane had taught Angela to moon-dance, as Jane’s mother had taught Jane and her sisters. And as Jane expected, Angela to teach it to her daughters. Who had remained single little egglets, never united with sperm, unpenetrated, nestled in Angela’s unstretched womb. Not that Angela had been a virgin. No. Just smart about birth control. Jane had taught her that too.

* * *

Jane reads. Jane goes to a shrink. Jane knows many facts. Are they helpful? No.

Approximately 19 percent of the U.S. population has experienced the death of a child. Almost 1 million deaths annually. This leaves 2 million bereaved parents every year.

The loss of a child triggers more intense grief than the death of a spouse or parent. After the death of a child, the divorce of the parents is a statistical probability. This is science.

Parents who experience the death of a child are more likely to suffer complicated grief. This is bereavement accompanied by feelings of separation and trauma distress. To earn this diagnosis, the person must experience extreme levels of three of the four separation distress symptoms—intrusive thoughts about the deceased, yearning for the deceased, searching for the deceased, and excessive loneliness since the death. They must also show “extreme” levels of four of the eight traumatic distress symptoms: purposelessness, numbness, or detachment, feeling that life is meaningless, feeling that a part of oneself has died, a shattered worldview, assuming behaviors of the deceased, and excessive irritability or anger.

Jane reads: These symptoms result in significant functional impairment.

She has to laugh. No shit, Sherlock.

* * *

Intrusive thoughts of the deceased.

Intrusive is a good word. Jane commends the psychologists who coined the phrase. Angela intrudes everywhere; each stone, each glass of water, each cup of coffee resonates with memories both bitter and sweet. Is anything just what it should be? A couch, a sweater, a doorknob? No. Angela inhabits every object on the planet that Jane encounters.

Yearning for the deceased.

Oh, how Jane yearns! Even for the last, bad teen years, for the slammed doors and refused plates of food and terrifying nights when Angela borrowed the car. Jane would take any of it now. And the early years! She looks at the few photos she kept, and weeps—what she wouldn’t do to trade places with that younger, more vibrant Jane! The busy and as-yet-uncomplicated mother.

Searching for the deceased.

Jane searches for Angela everywhere. In the house: Is she in the kitchen, making a mess scrambling eggs with butter and leaving the perishables on the counter? In her room, with her earphones on, listening to retro seventies music? On the street Jane constantly sees Angela and hurries to catch up to her, turns corners only to accost startled strangers.

Excessive loneliness

Loneliness: affected with, characterized by, or causing a depressing feeling of being alone.

Excessive: an amount or degree too great to be reasonable or acceptable.

Jane is alone. Utterly alone. The suffering is great, but it is both completely reasonable and absolutely acceptable. She deserves it, after all.

* * *

Jane has traveled the world, drunk deeply of its joys and sorrows, and landed here, in Princeton-by-the-Sea, a small village on the Northern California coast, a mile north of Half Moon Bay. She is suffering from complicated grief. She is trying to build a life here. She is building a life here, she tells people. Those who know her from her previous life admire her spirit. They exclaim about her resilience. They call and offer their support, but don’t talk about what drove her here. Those who don’t know Jane from before see a sad-faced woman, late thirties, friendly enough although guarded. The most notable thing about her is her hair: a deep, true red. She wears it long and straight, over her shoulders. She is talked about. That new red-haired woman. You know the one.

Jane works in Smithson’s Nursery in Half Moon Bay, the largest town on this stretch of the coast. Her fingernails are often dark from earth when she shops at the Safeway after the nursery closes, buying vegetables that are a riot of color: red peppers that match her hair, dark green cucumbers, light green lettuces, yellow squash, purple eggplants. She is an expert in native California plants, in which Smithson’s specializes. She can tell you whether to plant Big Sur manzanita (Arctostaphylos edmundsii) or Heart’s Desire (Ceanothus gloriosus) in that half-shaded alcove in your garden. If you speak to her, she startles. It is best to approach her gently, as you would a wild faun.

* * *

Half Moon Bay was once known as Spanishtown. The land was wrenched from the Costanoan Indians in the early 1800s, and Routes 1 and 92 still follow the old Costanoan trails along the ocean and over the hills. A luxury campground, Costanoa, has been built on top of the creekside hollow that was the main Costanoan settlement. Today, tourists feast on roast buffalo and wild pig before going to their “tents,” amid the sand dunes, really small ultraluxurious wooden houses on stilts with shiny bathrooms and king-size beds and down comforters. They do not think of the people they displaced. They do not know the old legends.I Like when the first person died and began to stink. The meadowlark smelled it. He did not like it. Coyote said: “I think I will make him get up.” The meadowlark said: “No, do not. There will be too many. They will become so many that they will eat each other.” Coyote said: “That is nothing. I do not like people to die.” But the meadowlark told him: “No, it is not well to have too many. There will be others instead of those that die. A man will have many children. The old people will die but the young will live.” Then Coyote said nothing more. So from that time on, people have always died. They are still being buried in the cemetery at the corner of Main and Route 92, the evidence of Coyote’s momentous decision the first thing tourists see as they enter the town.

After the Indians were vanquished, the first houses were raised in the 1840s by Mexican settlers given land grants. Whites began moving in after the Civil War, and after another kind of bloody resettlement, the town officially became Half Moon Bay in 1874, renamed for the perfect crescent-shaped harbor just north of town. Which brings us to one of the peculiarities of Half Moon Bay, and indeed many other Northern California coastal towns. Although situated in one of the most naturally stunning landscapes on the planet, the town center is set half a mile inland, its back to the ocean. The harbor itself is ugly, industrial, at the rear of a seedy mall with a Burger King and destitute variety shops. The town, really only Main Street, is itself quite quaint. Many of the original wood buildings still stand, although the adobes and early brick buildings were destroyed in the 1906 earthquake.

In 1907, the Ocean Shore Railroad was constructed along the shoreline from San Francisco to Tunitas Glen, south of Half Moon Bay. Developers had grand plans to turn Half Moon Bay and its environs into Atlantic City of the West. Plots were sold. Prices soared. Posters depicting bathers venturing into sky blue waters were printed. The developers imagined large hotels, splendid avenues, swank shops. But they hadn’t accounted for the freezing water and thick fog that covered the coast from June through August. No one came. Or if they came, they left hurriedly, shivering. Due to financial problems and the increasing popularity of the horseless carriage, the railroad ceased operation in 1920, the rails long ago ripped up and sold. Now all that remains are the broad streets laid out in large concentric circles facing the ocean in Jane’s town, Princeton-by-the-Sea. The avenues of Monterey pine trees planted to line those streets are now majestic, fulfilling the long-ago vision of a sophisticated playground for tourists, but underneath them are small rotting wood-frame cottages like Jane’s. The former train station is now a Chinese restaurant. It has a decent Mongolian beef, but do avoid the sweet-and-sour pork.

Who lives here? Who would choose this beautiful but remote spot? It isn’t easy to get to where the jobs are—either the long trek up Route 1 to San Francisco or the dangerous trip up and down the steep hill to Silicon Valley. Still, people do live here and are mostly content. There are the farmers, large and small, mostly organic these days. The shop owners, optimistic and typically disappointed by the clientele, who look but do not buy. These come and go. Some stay after their shops close. They like the fact that everyone pretty much knows everyone else by sight and that it’s a safe place to raise kids even though the schools are lousy. Water is scarce, so building new houses has been banned except for the Silicon Valley billionaires who buy up sections of the coastline and bribe the Coastal Commission for permits.

Take a walk now, down Main Street. See Marilyn Standish, the tough proprietor of the tiny coffee shop. She has had a mastectomy but without the reconstruction surgery. That would be vanity, she declared. She is a Seventh Day Adventist and doesn’t let her daughters celebrate their birthdays, although they secretly defy her and eat birthday cake and accept presents in the cafeteria at school. Keep going. See Bob Orlando, who owns Bogies, the grocery store. Downstairs is the usual food and produce. But upstairs, a trove of oddities. You can buy kissing nun salt-and-pepper shakers, authentic fisherman’s hats, books by local authors on the coastal flora and fauna. Everything jumbled in piles and seemingly forgotten for years. An Aladdin’s cave. Joan Acuesta is there now, sifting through the piles of extra-large flannel shirts and pillbox hats from the 1930s for a gift for her niece, whom she has raised from a baby. Unbeknown to Joan, her niece in seven months will give birth to a child of her own. She will refuse to name a father. Such things happen here frequently.

Go downstairs again and out the door. One block to the left, and you get to the Three Sisters Café. Run by three sisters, naturally: twins and their younger sibling. Opened only one year ago, and now the heart of the town. This is where you go to get the best coffee on the coast, the most flavorful artichoke soup, the freshest and most titillating gossip. You can’t see the walls of the café; they are covered with children’s drawings, notices of births and deaths, advertisements for the Coastal Players’ production of My Fair Lady, hot yoga classes by Martha, dog walking by Ian, and other essential services. You could spend a year reading those walls. By doing so, you don’t feel alone. You understand that life is pulsing around you, that even on Sunday nights, when Main Street is deserted and the fog shadows the streetlights, other hearts are beating around you. The wall brings comfort to Jonathan Hummer, who lost his wife to a sudden heart attack in February. He pulls off a paper tab containing a phone number for Ohlone Singles when he thinks no one is looking and puts it surreptitiously in his pocket. He will get a good one this time. He will get one who doesn’t blow cigarette smoke in his face, who can tolerate having dog hair on the living room furniture. He will.

The Beach Belly Dancers are meeting in the assembly room of the old First Methodist Church two blocks south of Three Sisters. They are mostly women of a certain age who would never wear two-piece bathing suits, who make love with the lights out, who buy their clothes on the Internet. Yet here they are, dressed in gaudy silk-like ballooning trousers and sparkling bras, exposing their pudding-like bellies to the world as they shake and whoop and stop to drink some wine or taste one of Janet Thimble’s homemade oatmeal cookies or plot a political coup on the town council. Together, they are a nation, and they are important. When they leave at 10:00 p.m., their shoulders are a little straighter, their steps a little faster. They return to their sleeping families feeling like army generals after a truce has been declared. What to do with all this energy? They sit at kitchen tables and write lengthy to-do lists and strident letters to the editor of the Moon News.

Darkness descends on Half Moon Bay. Fog mixed with smoke from wood stoves hovers above the houses. The surf pounds the sand, a full half-mile from Main Street, but the rhythm of the sea and its tantalizing scent permeate the porous window frames of the old wooden houses, soothing the inhabitants, luring them to their beds. They know they live in a bubble. They know that dark things, unimaginable things, wait in the wings for their turn to propagate and thrive. The Costanoa’s Coyote, the trickster, will ascend again, in more alluring form, in retribution for past sins. But for now, the town sleeps, content in its innocent ignorance.

* * *

That night, Jane can’t stop thinking about little Heidi. This is unusual. Jane has gotten good at not thinking. She has gotten very good about not feeling. She settles on her couch with a book, something a previous tenant left behind, the cover art portraying a bosomy sorceress fighting an army of horned beasts. But Jane can’t concentrate. She’s agitated. She thinks about the distraught parents. If she had sufficient generosity, she’d walk up the steep hill, offer to sit vigil with them. She’d tell her story. She’d reassure them that everything would almost certainly turn out all right. For them. And she’d be lying and secretly reveling in it. She considers the scenarios the parents are inevitably conjuring as they await news. Jane pictures Heidi as the little Swiss mountain girl in Angela’s version of the book by that name, snub-nosed with blond braids, puffed-out white sleeves, and an embroidered dress. Jane goes to bed and dreams of Heidi, safe on her mountain picking bluebells.

* * *

There is little talk of anything but Heidi at the Three Sisters Café, where Jane gets her coffee the next morning.

Have you heard? asks one of the young café owners as she refills Jane’s cup. Jane has finally gotten to where she can tell the sisters apart, they look so similar, even though only the two older ones are twins. They share a pale oval face with small dark eyes. They look like marmots, with their manes of dark hair caught up in ponytails, their large blue unblinking eyes. Somewhat feral, but nevertheless approachable. Sympathetic.

It is a closely knit community, and although this misfortune has hit outsider over-the-hill people, locals are feeling it deeply, Jane can tell. Voices are subdued. Children too young to be in school are being hugged close by their parents.

They’re organizing a search party, said the sister, her name is Margaret, on her next trip around the tables. Sign up at the sheriff’s office. Jane can’t—she has a job to do; she is, despite her fragile state, gainfully employed—but she leaves Margaret an extragenerous tip in recompense. People nod to her as she leaves. It’s that kind of place.

* * *

As it turns out, Heidi is dark-haired. She is not adorable. It is not an attractive photo that appears on the signs on the street, in the shop windows, in the Moon News. How can a five-year-old girl be so plain? Jane remembers Angela, her friends at that age, so heart-stoppingly lovely, the mothers universally convinced that strangers would be tempted to snatch them away if left unguarded for even a moment. So they weren’t. A generation of tiny prisoners.

* * *

Sometimes Jane walks, and talks, and acts as if she were still a mother, still a woman with a family, not a woman alone. A mother walks slower. She has much on her mind. Where is the daughter? Who is she with? What is she doing? And, most important, what could go wrong? A woman without a family is lighter on her feet, less distracted. She’s not thinking, Nearly dinnertime. What shall I feed her? Or see a dress in a window and stop and think, Wouldn’t she look cute in that? before reality sets in.

* * *

Two days pass. Three. People start shaking their heads in the Three Sisters Café. This will end in tears, Jane would tell Angela when, as a child, she played too roughly with her toy soldiers, her Barbie princesses, in an all-out war of the sexes, the pink bosomy Barbies overwhelming the small green plastic soldiers. Rick’s idea of bringing Angela up without gender biases. Jane walks past the photos of the singularly unattractive Heidi papering the windows of the stores along Main Street. This will end in tears.

* * *

Jane is not a believer in Dr. Kübler-Ross. The five stages of grief do not exist. Or rather, they are not stages. Or rather, they are not grief. They are madnesses. Jane accepts the fact that denial, anger, bargaining, and depression are now her life. Acceptance is not, nor will it ever be. Always a maker of lists, Jane has created an Excel spreadsheet on her laptop. She checks off the madnesses as they engulf her minute by minute, day by day, on a scale of 1 to 10. Is what her shrink calls the intensity dissipating? Jane’s shrink says yes; her spreadsheet says no.

Kübler-Ross missed some of the most important madnesses. Shame. Guilt. Hope. And yes, ecstasy. Sleep can bestow glorious gifts, as when Angela arises, whole and unmangled, acting as though nothing has happened. What’s for dinner? she asks. Or, Can I have the car? Or, worse, just a plain inquiring Mom? Then Jane wakes, and it is like hearing the news for the first time.

* * *

How do you define loss? Jane has posted Merriam-Webster’s definition on her bedroom mirror. Deprivation. She has been grievously deprived.

* * *

Here’s what Jane remembers. Heat. Even for July, it had been unusual. All the climatologists saying Get used to it. A hotter world. An increasingly inhospitable planet. Berkeley was certainly hostile that summer, if Jane remembers properly, if she is not fantasizing, if she is not transforming emotions into facts, as her shrink often accuses her of doing. You are the unreliable narrator of your own life. Yet surely it is true that at that time, the garbagemen are on strike, and stinking refuse is piling up on the street, overflowing onto sidewalks. Fans sell out at the hardware stores, as do rat traps. People stop picking up their dogs’ poop. The homeless, who refuse to shed their layers of clothing no matter how hot the temperature, are passing out from heatstroke and dehydration. The university lets them bathe in the fountains, an unusual concession of humanity. And then there is that night, when Jane sits in her living room waiting and worrying. No, she is not psychic. This is simply what she does when Angela is out at night. Where does this fear come from? She had grown up in a middle-class family in a safe middle-class town. Was the word fear? No. Terror. She waits, terrified, night after night.

When the police car pulls up in front of the house—of course, her curtains are open, of course, she makes sure she had a clear view of the street and sidewalk—you could say she was prepared. Jane had anticipated this day from the moment of Angela’s birth sixteen years ago. She hadn’t known what the details would be, of course. There were so many possibilities! But the two uniformed men who tread heavily up to Jane’s door fit in well enough with her fantasies. Yes. It could happen like this. Yes, it could. And then the knock on the door.

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for Half Moon Bay includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.


Half Moon Bay is a smart, haunting tale of psychological suspense from the award-winning New York Times bestselling author of Turn of Mind.

Jane loses everything when her teenage daughter is killed in a senseless accident. Jane is devastated, but sometime later, she makes one tiny stab at a new life: she moves from San Francisco to the tiny seaside town of Half Moon Bay. She is inconsolable, and yet, as the months go by, she is able to cobble together some version of a job, of friends, of the possibility of peace.

And then, children begin to disappear. And soon, Jane sees her own pain reflected in all the parents in the town. She wonders if she will be able to live through the aching loss, the fear all around her. But as the disappearances continue, she begins to see that what her neighbors are wondering is if it is Jane herself who has unleashed the horror of loss on the town.

Topics and Questions for Discussion

1. LaPlante has crafted a deeply complicated protagonist. Discuss the author’s decision to write this story in close third person. How does the choice of this point of view impact our understanding of Jane? If LaPlante had written this novel in first person (I, me) or third person omniscient (where we would have understood others’ thoughts) how would this have impacted the narrative and our understanding of Jane?

2. Instead of fully revealing Angela’s death at the beginning of the novel, LaPlante creates suspense and intrigue, slowly doling out details—about Angela’s life, about the day she was killed, about the effect her death had on Jane—before fully revealing the accident. Discuss the effect of LaPlante’s decision to hold certain details back before revealing others. Where else does she does this do this in the novel?

3. Jane is consumed by her own tremendous loss and has “posted Merriam-Webster’s definition [of it] on her bedroom mirror. Deprivation. She has been grievously deprived” (page 19). Discuss your own definition of loss and the effect it can have on a person.

4. Throughout the novel, Jane refers to herself as a madwoman. Regarding the first child abductions: “Jane is conflicted. She should be ashamed to feel joy in someone else’s misfortune, yet the inevitable schadenfreude has raised its ugly head. I told you so. The madnesses descend, one by one” (page 23). Discuss Jane’s relationship to madness.

5. Jane experiences multiple interactions with characters who believe that she may be behind the murders. In a conversation with the FBI, an agent says: “We know that you have been what many would call unstable. That you are, as they say, capable of going off the rails” (page 57). Did you question the reliability of Jane’s account of events? Did you ever doubt Jane’s innocence? When?

6. The town of Half Moon Bay feels like a character itself. How would you characterize the community? Do you think these crimes have happened anywhere? Discuss why LaPlante may have chosen this setting.

7. Consider the moment when Jane is with Alma on a literal edge: “[Jane] is strangely drawn to edges. She knows she would throw herself off bridges, jump off cliffs, step off narrow paths on steep mountains if she let herself get too close. It would be irresistible” (page 98). Discuss LaPlante’s character building in this passage. How does revisiting this passage illuminate what happens later in the novel?

8. After Jane has allowed Edward and Alma into her life, she becomes obsessed with them, both separately and together. Edward and Alma seem to give Jane a sense of belonging and purpose, and they quickly develop an intimate and secretive bond. What were your initial impressions of the couple? How did your feelings about Edward and Alma change over the course of the novel? What were the turning points?

9. Consider the following quote from Sheree: “Have you noticed how much grief is like fear?” (page 141). Discuss with your group the heart and meaning of this quotation—where do we see this in the novel? Does it have emotional truth for you, in your own life?

10. Near the end of the book Edward, Alma, and Jane are involved in a protest that involves “civil disobedience.” Worrying about the consequences, Jane asks, “What have you done?” “You mean we,” Edward replies. “You’re implicated in this. If we go down, you go down” (pages 206–207). Reread this passage and then the final pages of the novel. In what ways does this statement foreshadow the events that take place later in the novel?

11. Edward and Alma “are drugs [Jane] has unknowingly become addicted to” (page 234). Did you ever wonder why Edward and Alma were interested in Jane or what their intentions were? Were they truly magnetized by Jane? What did they want from her? Were they merely looking for someone to take the blame for their crimes?

12. After discovering Megan, Victim Number 5, in Edward and Alma’s home, Jane wonders what would happen if she were to do nothing: “They would be closer, bound by a deeper, darker bond” (page 255). Do you think Jane is really tempted at this prospect? Why? Discuss the scene with your group. How did it make you feel?

13. The end of Half Moon Bay comes almost as a landslide. How did LaPlante’s ending leave you feeling? Compare this narrative structure and climax with other psychological thrillers you’ve read.

Enhance Your Book Club

1. LaPlante’s psychological thriller Turn of Mind was a New York Times bestseller. Read Turn of Mind with your book club, then compare and contrast the two books. In what ways are they similar? How has LaPlante’s writing style evolved from her earlier work?

2. In addition to novels, LaPlante has written guides to the basics of creative writing—both fiction and creative nonfiction. Method and Madness: The Making of a Story has tips for finding inspiration and getting ideas on the page. Complete some of these exercises with your group and share them.

3. Jane is passionate about native plants and botany. Plan a trip with your group to a nearby botanical garden or plant seedlings together so that everyone can take something home.

4. Unreliable narrators have appeared recently in The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins and Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and in classic novels like Vladimir Nabakov’s Lolita. Part of the challenge and enjoyment of these stories is working out the truth and understanding why the narrator is not straightforward. Read one of these novels and discuss how the book’s narrator compares to Jane. Discuss why the narrators are not always truthful.

To learn more about Alice LaPlante, read more about her other writings, and connect with her online, visit her official website at

About The Author

Asa Mathat

Alice LaPlante is an award-winning writer whose bestselling books include Half Moon Bay, A Circle of Wives, Method and Madness—The Making of a Story, and the New York Times bestseller Turn of Mind. She taught creative writing at Stanford University where she was a Wallace Stegner Fellow and in the MFA program at San Francisco State University. She lives with her family in Mallorca, Spain.


Product Details

  • Publisher: Scribner (July 2, 2019)
  • Length: 288 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781501190896

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Raves and Reviews

A “brooding suspense novel…dark, starkly beautiful…LaPlante uses a seductively dangerous landscape to mirror her heroine’s inner life.”

– Kirkus

“This well-crafted novel of psychological suspense will appeal as much to mainstream fiction readers as genre fans.”

– Publishers Weekly

"LaPlante knows how to ramp up suspense...Readers will grip their chairs to see if this wounded soul crashes or pulls up."

– San Francisco Gate

"The way that Alice LaPlante finesses this witch hunt-like thread gives the absorbingly macabre Half Moon Bay its underpinning of compassion."

– Shelf Awareness

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