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Monday, June 23, 2008

The Year of Fog A Mesmerizing Look at the People Behind the Statistics

(Image from Amazon)

Each year, around 800,000 children go missing. Sixty-thousand of these are non-family abductions; 115 are long-term, news-getting kidnappings. Of the 115 victims, half are sexually assualted, 40% are killed, and 4% vanish into thin air, never to be found.* Imagine if your child was one of them.

Abby Mason, a 33-year-old San Francisco photographer, doesn't have to imagine. She's living the nightmare. The Year of Fog by Michelle Richmond begins with the abduction of 6-year-old Emma Balfour, Abby's soon-to-be-step-daughter. While the pair wander Ocean Beach, the little girl disappears into the fog, throwing Abby into a panic. She scours the beach to no avail - Emma is simply gone. "This is what I know," Abby tells the police, "I was walking on the beach with Emma. It was cold and very foggy. She let go of my hand. I stopped to photograph a seal pup, then glanced up toward the Great Highway. When I looked back, she was gone" (9). Although volunteers search the beach, no clues point to where the child has gone, or who has taken her.

As the days wear on without any sign of Emma, Abby and her fiancee put all of their energy into finding her. They set up a command post; plaster fliers all over the city; visit news and radio stations; anything to keep Emma's name in the news, anything to find her. Nothing works. Others suggest a drowning, but Abby cannot accept that, knowing the fearful Emma never would have strayed that close to the waves. She's convinced Emma was kidnapped. Even though she knows the statistics - only 57% of the victims of long-term abduction are ever found - Abby determines to find the child she lost.

Months pass with little news and no leads. Abby's life becomes an impossible, obsessive-compulsive search. Her wedding has been postponed; her relationship with her fiance is strained and tense; her photography business is falling apart; Abby's drinking too much; and for all of the frantic searching, Emma seems to be nowhere at all. Abby has patrolled every neighborhood in San Francisco; the only place that eludes her is her own memory. She knows there is a clue somewhere inside her head, but the more she searches, the less details emerge. "What I want, above all," she says,

is too remember, to see with absolute clarity the events of that day on Ocean Beach. I would gladly trade a lifetime of memories - birthdays and Christmas mornings, first dates and splendid vacations, wonderful books and beautiful faces - for the one memory that matters, the one that would lead me to Emma" (56).

Finally, Abby remembers one detail - a golden frog on a longboard. She clutches the idea with the desperation of a drowning woman. Even as the police close Emma's case; the command center shuts down; and Emma's father plans a memorial; Abby pursues the clue. With everyone questioning her sanity, she flies to Costa Rica to track down the golden frog and its owner, whose identity swims vaguely in her mind. She prays the trip that seems futile to everyone else will give her the one thing she needs to assuage her guilt and repair her life - Emma. The grim statistics stare her in the face, but Abby will not stop until she defies them, until she brings home the little girl she loves.

When I saw The Year of Fog compared to a Jodi Picoult novel, I expected a fast-paced thriller. It's not. In fact, I only agree with the comparison in the vaguest sense. While Michelle Richmond certainly matches Picoult in skill, her style differs significantly. Her pacing is slower, her words more ponderous, her description more atmospheric. Not that The Year of Fog has no action - it has plenty, it just takes a backseat to the characters and their emotions.

Although it is ultimately hopeful, the bulk of Richmond's novel is as moody as a fog-laden San Francisco morning. Richmond succeeds in recreating the sorrow and hopelessness that must accompany real-life searches for missing children, but she almost does her job too well. Much of the story is dark and depressing. Again mirroring real life, the book sags in the middle as Abby deals with an investigation that drags on at a maddening snail's pace. I know Richmond wanted to echo reality, but matching that inaction in a novel really slows down the plot. I never read the last chapter to find out what happens in a book, but with this one, I was sorely tempted. The action does pick up in the last third of the story, after which I raced through the pages, riveted right up until its satisfying end.

If you've ever wondered about the people behind the statistics, this book is for you. The mystery will keep your attention, while the characters behind the statistics will speak to your heart. It lacks the lightning-quick action of a true thriller but it makes up for it in solid, luminous writing. Despite the drag in the middle, The Year of Fog is a mesmerizing story that will have you teetering off the edge of your seat in anticipation.

Grade: B+

*Statistics from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and The Year of Fog by Michelle Richmond.


  1. Oooh I can't read this post yet, this book is next on my TBR pile! I'm glad to see you rated it a B+ though! I did like your intro regarding the statistics, it is too scary to think about it.

  2. Brave you for reading this. After 22 years since my son "vanished" at Sea World I still don't know if I'm ready to read it. Your write up is eloquent. You kept a fair appraisal of writing skills/styles while addressing what should be a riveting plot. I always know that I will get a fair and balanced review from you! Thanks!!

  3. Katie - Can't wait to see what you think of the book!

    Gaye - If I had any real-life experience with this (other than the times when I've lost track of my kids for a few minutes here and there), I probably wouldn't have read this book. I wouldn't blame you at all for avoiding it.

  4. I wouldn't blame Gaye either for avoiding this one. My heart goes out to her.

    I read another review of this one recently and have been curious about it. I wondered how it compared to Deep End of the Ocean--did you read that one?

    Great review, by the way. I do like books that take a look at the people behind the statistics and think I might like this one.


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