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  • Written by Michelle Richmond
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  • Written by Michelle Richmond
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Written by Michelle RichmondAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Michelle Richmond

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On Sale: March 27, 2007
Pages: 320 | ISBN: 978-0-440-33655-6
Published by : Delacorte Press Bantam Dell
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

Life changes in an instant. On a foggy beach. In the seconds when Abby Mason—photographer, fiancée soon-to-be-stepmother—looks into her camera and commits her greatest error. Heartbreaking, uplifting, and beautifully told, here is the riveting tale of a family torn apart, of the search for the truth behind a child’s disappearance, and of one woman’s unwavering faith in the redemptive power of love—all made startlingly fresh through Michelle Richmond’s incandescent sensitivity and extraordinary insight.

Six-year-old Emma vanished into the thick San Francisco fog. Or into the heaving Pacific. Or somewhere just beyond: to a parking lot, a stranger’s van, or a road with traffic flashing by. Devastated by guilt, haunted by her fears about becoming a stepmother, Abby refuses to believe that Emma is dead. And so she searches for clues about what happened that morning—and cannot stop the flood of memories reaching from her own childhood to illuminate that irreversible moment on the beach.

Now, as the days drag into weeks, as the police lose interest and fliers fade on telephone poles, Emma’s father finds solace in religion and scientific probability—but Abby can only wander the beaches and city streets, attempting to recover the past and the little girl she lost. With her life at a crossroads, she will leave San Francisco for a country thousands of miles away. And there, by the side of another sea, on a journey that has led her to another man and into a strange subculture of wanderers and surfers, Abby will make the most astounding discovery of all—as the truth of Emma’s disappearance unravels with stunning force.

A profoundly original novel of family, loss, and hope—of the choices we make and the choices made for us—The Year of Fog beguiles with the mysteries of time and memory even as it lays bare the deep and wondrous workings of the human heart. The result is a mesmerizing tour de force that will touch anyone who knows what it means to love a child.

BONUS: This edition includes an excerpt from Michelle Richmond's Golden State.

Excerpt

Chapter One


HERE IS the truth, this is what I know: we were walking on Ocean Beach, hand in hand. It was a summer morning, cold, July in San Francisco. The fog lay white and dense over the sand and ocean–an enveloping mist so thick I could see only a few feet in front of me.

Emma was searching for sand dollars. Sometimes they wash up by the dozens, whole and dazzling white, but that day the beach was littered with broken halves and quarters. Emma was disappointed. She is a child who prefers things in a state of perfection: sand dollars must be complete, schoolbooks must be pristine, her father's hair must be neatly trimmed, falling just above his collar.

I was thinking of her father's hair, the soft dark fringe where it touches his neck, when Emma tugged at my hand. "Hurry," she said.

"What's the rush?"

"The waves might wash them away."

Despite our bad luck so far, Emma believed that on the beach ahead lay a treasure of perfect sand dollars.

"Want to go to Louis's Diner instead?" I said. "I'm hungry."

"I'm not."

She tried to extract her fingers and pull away. I often thought, though I never said it, that her father spoiled her. I understood why: she was a child without a mother, and he was trying to compensate.

"Let me go," she said, twisting her hand in my own, surprisingly strong.

I leaned down and looked into her face. Her green eyes stared back at me, resolute. I knew I was the adult. I was bigger, stronger, more clever. But I also knew that in a test of will, Emma would outlast me every time. "Will you stay close by?"

"Yes." She smiled, knowing she had won.

"Find me a pretty sand dollar."

"I'll find you the biggest," she said, stretching her arms wide.

She skipped ahead, that small, six-year-old mystery, that brilliant feminine replica of her father. She was humming some song that had been on the radio minutes earlier. Watching her, I felt a surge of joy and fear. In three months, I would marry her father. We hadn't yet explained to her that I would be moving in permanently. That I would make her breakfast, take her to school, and attend her ballet recitals, the way her mother used to do. No, the way her mother should have done.

"You're good for Emma," Jake liked to say. "You'll be a much better mother than my ex-wife ever was."

And I thought, every time, how do you know? What makes you so sure? I watched Emma with her yellow bucket, her blue cloth shoes, her black ponytail whipping in the wind as she raced away from me, and wondered, how can I do it? How can I become a mother to this girl?

I lifted the Holga to my eye, aware as the shutter clicked–once, softly, like a toy–that Emma would be reduced to a blurry 6´6 in black and white. She was moving too fast, the light was insufficient. I turned the winding knob, clicked, advanced again. By the time I pressed the shutter release a final time, she was nearly gone.

Chapter Two



HERE THEN is the error, my moment of greatest failure. If everyone has a decision she would give anything to retract, this is mine: A shape in the sand caught my eye. At first it looked like something discarded–a child's shirt, perhaps, or a tiny blanket. By instinct I brought the camera to my eye, because this is what I do–I take pictures for a living, I record the things I see. As I moved closer, the furry head came into focus, the arched back, black spots on white fur. The small form was dusted with sand, its head pointing in my direction, its flippers resting delicately at its sides.

I knelt beside the seal pup, reaching out to touch it, but something stopped me. The wet black eyes, open and staring, did not blink. Spiky whiskers fanned out from the face, and three long lashes above each eye moved with the breeze. Then I saw the gash along its belly, mostly hidden by sand, and felt some maternal urge bumping around inside me. How long did I spend with the seal pup–thirty seconds? A minute? More?

A tiny sand crab scuttled over the sand by my toe. The sight of it reminded me of those miniature creatures that littered the beach at Gulf Shores when I was a child. My sister Annabel would capture them in mason jars and marvel at their pink underbellies as they tried to climb out, legs ticking against the glass. This crab kicked up a pocket of sand, then disappeared; at most, another ten seconds passed.

I glanced eastward toward the park, where the fog abruptly ended, butting up against startling blue. As a transplant to this city from the bright and sultry South, I had come to love the fog, its dramatic presence, the way it deadens sound. The way it simply stops, rather than fading, opaque whiteness suddenly giving way to clarity. Crossing from fog into sunlight, one has the feeling of having emerged. Traveling in the other direction is like sinking into a mysterious, fairy-tale abyss.

Just beyond the beach, along the Great Highway, a hearse led a line of cars south toward Pacifica. I remembered the last funeral I attended, a healthy guy in his late twenties who broke his neck in a rock-climbing accident; he was a friend of a friend, not someone I knew well, but because I'd talked with him at a dinner party two weeks before the accident, it seemed appropriate to go to the funeral. This recollection took another five seconds.

I looked ahead, where Emma should be, but did not see her. I began walking. Everything was saturated a cool white, and distance was impossible to measure. I clutched the plastic Holga, imagining the great images I'd get, the deep black of Emma's hair against the cold white beach.

I couldn't help thinking of the dead seal pup, how I would explain it to Emma. I believed this was something mothers instinctively knew how to do. This would be a test, the first of many; at that moment I was not thinking entirely of Emma. I walked faster, anxious to know if she had seen the seal; it was a good thing for her to see that day, alone on the beach with me. I wanted her to be frightened by the dead seal pup so I could step delicately into the role of stepmother.

I don't know exactly when I realized something was wrong. I kept walking and did not see her. I pushed my hands in front of me, aware even as I did so of the absurdity of the gesture, as if a pair of hands could part the fog.

"Emma!" I called.

The panic did not strike immediately. No, that would take several seconds, a full minute almost. At first it was only a gradual slipping, a sense of vertigo, like the feeling I used to get as a child when I would stand knee-deep in the warm water of the Gulf of Mexico, close my eyes against the white-hot Alabama sun, and let the waves erode the platform under my feet. First the sand beneath the arches would go, then the toes, and finally I would lose my balance and tumble forward into the surf, mouth filling with seawater, eyes snapping open to meet the bright spinning world.

"Emma!"

I yelled louder, feeling the shifting, unreliable sand beneath my feet. I ran forward, then back, retracing my steps. She's hiding, I thought. She must be hiding. A few yards from the dead seal pup stood a concrete drainage wall covered with graffiti. I ran toward the wall. In my mind I pictured her crouched there, giggling, the pail propped on her knees. This vision was so clear, had such the ring of truth, I almost believed I had seen it. But when I reached the wall, she wasn't there. I leaned against it, felt my insides convulse, and vomited into the sand.

From where I stood, I could make out the shape of the public restrooms down the beach. Racing toward them, I felt a sense of dread. I knew, already, that the search had somehow shifted. I crossed the two-lane-highway and checked the women's room, which was dark and empty. Then I circled around to the men's side. The windows were made of frosted glass, dim light spilling onto the tile floor. I plunged my hand into the trash bin, looking for her clothes, her shoes. I got down on hands and knees and looked behind the urinals, holding my breath against the stench. Nothing.

As I crossed back to the beach, I was shaking. My fingers felt numb, my throat dry. I climbed to the top of a sand dune and turned in circles, seeing nothing but the impenetrable white fog, hearing nothing but the soft hum of cars along the Great Highway. For a moment I stood still. "Think," I said out loud. "Don't panic."

Up ahead, more fog, a half mile or so of beach, then the hill leading to the Cliff House, the Camera Obscura, the ruins of the Sutro Baths, Louis's Diner. To the right, there was the long sidewalk, the highway, and beyond it, Golden Gate Park. Behind me, miles of beach. To my left, the Pacific Ocean, gray and frothing. I stood at the center of a fog-bound maze with invisible walls and infinite possibilities. I thought: a child disappears on a beach. Where does that child go?

Chapter Three


I WILL RETURN again and again to that moment. I will keep a notebook in which I record the details. There will be poorly done sketches, graphs of time and motion, page after page on which I attempt to recover the past. I will pretend that memory is reliable, that it does not erode as quickly and completely as the brittle lines of an Etch-a-Sketch. I will tell myself that, buried somewhere in the intricate maze of my mind, there is a detail, a clue, some tiny lost thing that will lead me to Emma.

Later, they will want to know the exact moment I noticed she was missing. They will want to know whether I saw anyone unusual on the beach, whether I heard anything in the moments before or after she disappeared. They–the police, the reporters, her father–will ask the same questions again and again, staring into my eyes with desperation, as if by repetition they might make me remember, as if by force of will they can conjure clues where there are none.

This is what I tell them, this is what I know: 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.

The only person to whom I will tell the entire story is my sister, Annabel. Only my sister will know I wasted ten seconds on a sand crab, five on a funeral procession. Only my sister will know I wanted Emma to see the dead seal, that in the moment before she disappeared, I was scheming to make her love me. For others, I will choose my words carefully, separating the important details from misleading trivialities. For them, I will present this version of the truth: there is a girl, her name is Emma, she is walking on the beach. I look away, seconds pass. When I look back she is gone.

This single moment unfolds like a flower in a series of time-lapse photographs, like an intricate maze. I stand at the labyrinth's center, unable to see which paths lead to dead ends, which one to the missing child. I know I must trust memory to lead me. I know I have one chance to get it right.

The first story I tell, the first clue I reveal, will determine the direction of the search. The wrong detail, the wrong clue, will inevitably lead to confusion, while the right clue leads to a beautiful child. Should I tell the police about the postman in the parking lot, the motorcycle, the man in the orange Chevelle, the yellow van? Or is it the seal that matters, the hearse, the retaining wall, the wave? How does one distinguish between the relevant and the extraneous? One slip in the narrative, one mistake in the selection of details, and everything disintegrates.

Chapter Four



PI TIMES radius squared equals the area of a circle. Time is a continuum, stretching forward and back infinitely. I learned these things in school.

In a ninth-grade classroom at Murphy High School, Dr. Thomas Swayze, an exhilarating and shady character who was rumored to have received his doctorate through the mail, drew a giant circle on the chalkboard. On the outer rim of the circle and on a straight line drawn from the midpoint to the circle's edge, he scribbled numbers and formulas. His bicep flexed, straining the white sleeve of his T-shirt. "Radius, diameter, circumference," he said, his FM radio voice inciting in me sweaty adolescent desires. He turned to face the classroom and rolled the gleaming white cone of chalk from palm to palm, looking straight at me.

The sun glared through a long row of windows, turning the copper hair of the girl in front of me to flame; she smelled like Juicy Fruit gum. My hand lay on the desktop in a pool of burning light; all around my thumbnail were flecks of blood where I had chewed the skin to shreds. In my head, a steady, maddening hum. Dr. Swayze turned toward the blackboard. Some hidden object formed a faded and perfect circle on the back pocket of his blue jeans.

"And the greatest of these is area," he said. My knees slid apart, and I could feel little pools of sweat gathering on the plastic seat beneath my thighs.

Years before, Mrs. Monk, my third-grade teacher, had moved the hands on a giant cardboard clock and extolled the virtues of time. Seconds were grains of sand, she said. Minutes were pebbles. Hours were the bricks of which past, present, and future are made. She talked of days and years, decades, centuries. She talked of the millennium, when we would all be grown. She opened her big arms wide and whispered the word eon. In our portable classroom, the air conditioner sputtering mildly against Mobile's April heat, Mrs. Monk, teacher of the year for 1977, preached and glowed and sweated.

I sat at my wooden desk, looking up at that huge circle with its eternally trapped hands, and cried. She came over to me and laid warm, damp fingers on my neck. "Abby, what's wrong?" she asked. I leaned into her ample, motherly waist, buried my face in deep folds of polyester, and confessed, "I don't understand time." It wasn't the clock itself that confounded me, the half-past and quarter-till, the five-of and ten-after, but rather the essential nature of time. I did not have the words to explain this to Mrs. Monk.


From the Hardcover edition.
Michelle Richmond|Author Q&A

About Michelle Richmond

Michelle Richmond - The Year of Fog

Photo © Misty Richmond

Michelle Richmond is the author of The Year of Fog, Dream of the Blue Room, and the award-winning story collection The Girl in the Fall-Away Dress. A native of Mobile, Alabama, Michelle lives with her husband and son in San Francisco, where she is at work on her next novel.

Author Q&A

A Q&A with author Michelle Richmond


You are having tea or coffee with one of your favorite authors.  Who is it, and what would you ask that author if you only got to ask him/her one question? 

I would ask Chekhov how he managed to get the ending precisely right, every time. Or I would ask Grace Paley, who may have had the best ear for dialogue of any American writer working in the last half-century, how she managed to make the voices on the page sound so real and smart and biting, while at the same time creating incredibly sympathetic characters.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve discovered about having a book published?   

Emails come from parts unknown with the most fascinating information, the most surprising connections. A photographer and sea captain wrote to tell me that he had read The Year of Fog while out at sea, and that, upon returning to the Bay Area, he had embarked on a photo tour of the places that appear in The Year of Fog. (You can view the photos by visiting my website, www.michellerichmond.com.)

What’s your typical writing day like? And what environment is most conducive to your process? 

The environment in which I work best is an almost ascetic one—very quiet, no outside distractions. I primarily work at home, and although I do have a window overlooking the street in my home office, it’s a fairly quiet street “out in the avenues,” as we say in San Francisco. In fact, I live in the area of the city that used to be referred to as the Outside Lands, an area which figures prominently in The Year of Fog.

For me, good coffee is a prerequisite for writing. On the days when I teach (in the MFA program in writing at a local college), I don’t write at all. On the days when I write, I try to completely forget about teaching so that I can focus on my own work. After taking my son to school, I sometimes walk to the coffee shop near my house, just to remind myself that the outdoors exist and to get in a little human interaction before sitting alone in front of my computer for five hours. More often, though, I make my coffee at home; this is one of my most cherished daily rituals, involving very fresh beans which I grind myself. No milk. No sugar. Just very good, very fresh coffee.

Coffee in hand, I sit down in front of my computer. If I’m working on a novel, I usually begin by reading the chapter I was working on the previous day. I’ll tinker a bit with the previous day’s work—fine-tuning sentences, adding details—before writing new material. Several hours later I’ll emerge from the fog of writing and try to reconnect with the world again. If the writing is going well, there’s this fuzzy border zone between writing and not writing, a period when my brain is still inside the novel, even though, physically, I’m no longer at the computer and am dealing with the external details of the day.

Can you name the first book you read that inspired you in some special way? Why? 

Old Hasdrubal and the Pirates, by Bethe Amos. My mother must have read this book to me hundreds of times when I was a child. It’s long out of print, but when I found out I was pregnant a few years ago, one of the first things I did was go online and find a copy. It’s a swashbuckling story with dark, dramatic watercolor illustrations and wonderfully cheeky writing: “Now old great-great grandfather Hasdrubal was about to shove off, when he heard the sound of paddled pirogues in the sultry swamp. He pushed his pirogue into high marsh grasses just before a dozen pirates with a captive maid glided into sight and landed on a shell bank.”

It was many years later that I read Madam Bovary, possibly the first novel I read as an adult that moved me as deeply as the books that were read to me as a child. At about the same time, I read Lolita for the first time. With both Flaubert and Nabokov, I was inspired by the way beautiful sentences worked in tandem with rich characters and storylines; I also loved the sense of playfulness in their work. Later, when I began writing short stories seriously, I was inspired by the prose style of Grace Paley, the beauty of ideas in novellas by Lars Gustaffson. And I will always come home to The Moviegoer, by Walker Percy, which makes an appearance in The Year of Fog: “To become aware of the possibility of a search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.”

Many writing experts advise “write about what you know.”  Do you agree with this?  And what practical advice would you give an aspiring author? 

I tend to write what I don’t know, because for me a major part of the joy of writing comes from immersing myself in a subject I know little about. While writing The Year of Fog, for example, I had a wonderful time delving into the nature of memory and into the details of surfing culture. Those, of course, are the more external aspects of the book. I think from an emotional standpoint, I do tend to write what I know. I know what it feels like for a relationship to fall apart. I know what it feels like to care deeply about someone else’s child. I was able to write about Abby’s obsession with the search because I’m no stranger to obsession.

My advice to an aspiring author? Be the quietest person at the dinner party. Listen. Observe. Tune into the way people behave, their motivations. To be a novelist, one needs empathy. Empathy comes from truly trying to understand how people feel, how they make decisions. Being a keen and quiet observer of human nature will go a lot farther toward making you a good writer than any writing class. And read, read, read.

Can you tell us about the book you are working on now? 

I’m very excited about my new novel, No One You Know, which will be published by Delacorte in July. My new novel is a perfect example of writing what I don’t know. The narrator is a coffee buyer, which gave me the opportunity to spend time at a coffee roaster—pretty much my dream research. The narrator’s now-deceased sister was a math prodigy, and I spent a lot of time reading up on math—biographies of famous mathematicians, G.H. Hardy’s classic A Mathematician’s Apology, books about famous unsolved problems. Who knew that the stories behind math could be so interesting? I’ll never be the kind of person who enjoys balancing the checkbook, but thanks to No One You Know, I’ve developed a deep appreciation for the beauty of mathematics.

When you finish writing your answers to this Q&A, what will you do next?

I happen to be writing this on Valentine’s Day. In a few minutes, I’ll be frosting the cupcakes for a party at my son’s school. Seriously! If you told me three years ago I’d be frosting cupcakes at 1:30 on a Thursday afternoon, I never would have believed you. As timing would have it, just minutes ago, as I was answering these questions, the UPS man arrived with a package from Bantam. I haven’t opened it, but I know what it is: the paperback version of The Year of Fog, hot off the presses. So once the cupcakes are frosted, I plan to sit down (with a cupcake of course, and coffee), open that package, and call my mother, who had the good sense to make me fall in love with books thirty-something years ago.

Praise | Awards

Praise

The Year of Fog is impossible to stop reading. Even as I savored Michelle Richmond's rich prose and fascinating passages on photography and the nature of memory, I couldn't turn the pages fast enough. A missing child, a haunting neighborhood, a search for love...The Year of Fog has it all. Make a sandwich now: you won't stop reading for hours.”—Amanda Eyre Ward, author of How to Be Lost

“What a wonderful novel! The lush prose kept me turning pages as surely as the compelling plot did. Suspenseful, richly imagined, and ultimately hopeful, The Year of Fog is a keeper. Michelle Richmond is a talent to watch.”—Joshilyn Jackson, author of Gods in Alabama and Between, Georgia

“A child’s disappearance is at the heart of this riveting read that follows photographer, fiancée and soon-to-be-stepmother Abby Mason. Once the drama starts, prepare to race to the last page.” —Hallmark magazine (“New Book We Love)

“Involving, heartrending and immediately readable.” —San Francisco Examiner

“Gripping.” —People

"Captivating.” —Family Circle

“GRADE: A.” —Washington Post

“The best new novel of the summer.” —Mobile Register


From the Hardcover edition.

Awards

WINNER 2007 Library Journal Best Books of the Year
Reader's Guide|Discussion Questions

About the Book

In its breathtaking opening scenes, The Year of Fog captures one of the most terrifying moments imaginable. Photographer Abby Mason has been enjoying the prospect of becoming a stepmother, spending the day with her fiancée’s six-year-old daughter, Emma. But in the blink of an eye, everything changes. In the brief moment it takes Abby to look through her camera lens at the Pacific beach, Emma vanishes from sight. The ensuing search will test everything Abby ever believed about families, about the man she loves, and about herself.

By turns chilling and redeeming, this is the story of a journey that eventually takes Abby thousands of miles from California. Wracked by guilt and determined to find Emma alive, even when the girl’s father has given up hope, she sifts through the memories of that day, searching for a missed detail in a landscape that becomes riddled with false leads. As memories of her own childhood begin to creep into her mind, Emma’s disappearance becomes the backdrop of a stark awakening, not only for Abby, but for everyone who has cared about this little girl. With her keen perception and magnificent descriptive powers, award-winning author Michelle Richmond has created a stirring tale of hope.

The questions and discussion topics that follow are intended to enhance your reading of Michelle Richmond’s The Year of Fog. We hope they will enrich your experience of this haunting novel.

Discussion Guides

1. The Year of Fog unfolds as a series of flashbacks and present-tense scenes. How do Abby’s impressions of her own past shift as she searches for Emma? What does her research on the neuroscience of memory tell us about the limits and the power of the mind’s imagery?

2. How much was Emma a factor in Abby’s relationship with Jake? After Emma’s disappearance, what did they discover about each other? Why was it awkward for Abby to see Jake turn to religion? Why was he skeptical of her insistence that Emma didn’t drown but was kidnapped?

3. How does Abby’s eye as a photographer shape the way she sees the world around her? What does she see that others don’t? What kinds of images captivate her the most? What does her approach to photography indicate about her approach to life?

4. Are Ramon and Jake entirely different, or was there a common thread that attracted Abby to each of them? What keeps her from sleeping with Nick in chapter 40? What has she needed from men in general at crucial points in her life?

5. How did Abby’s recollections of her own mother affect her approach to being a stepmother?

6. Describing the ancient history of memory studies in chapter 43, Abby mentions the concept of Renaissance “memory theaters” and later has a dream in which her memories are displayed in ways she cannot fully comprehend. If your past were to be categorized in such a way, what would it look like? Which objects would best represent various events? Which of your memories would you most like to preserve?

7. Abby struggles with feelings of inadequacy, seeing herself as the sister who often botches her chances at a happier life. What accounts for the tremendous differences between her self-perception and Annabel’s?

8. How would you describe Lisbeth’s wavering, extreme motivations? What would explain her dangerous decisions? How is she able to appear trustworthy?

9. For Abby, one of the most difficult aspects of the search is the fact that she doesn’t receive full respect as a key figure in Emma’s life. Ultimately, how do you define “a devoted mother”? What are the best examples of good parenting in the novel? What determines whether someone has what it takes to be a good parent?

10. What enabled Abby to uncover the truth while Jake could not? Was it her intuition? Determination? Hypnosis? Fate? Or simply the deep guilt she felt? What ultimately caused the fog to lift in Emma’s disappearance?

11. In many ways, the novel is a poignant portrait of coping with grief, in this case a very unresolved form of grief. What is the best way to confront tragedy?

12. How did you attempt to solve the mystery of Emma’s disappearance? Were you able to hold out hope for her survival?

13. Goofy’s help leads Abby to the sojourn in Costa Rica. What do both beach communities begin to mean to her? In what way does the landscape, both liberating and treacherous, form an appropriate place for her to come to terms with her greatest fears?

14. What is distinct about Abby’s storytelling voice? How might the novel have unfolded had it been told from Jake’s point of view?

15. What did the novel reveal to you about the world of missing children and their families? Did it change your perspective on the real-life cases you encounter in the media?

16. As you saw Abby catch a wave in the final paragraph, what did you predict for her future?


  • The Year of Fog by Michelle Richmond
  • February 26, 2008
  • Fiction - Contemporary Women; Fiction
  • Bantam Discovery
  • $14.00
  • 9780385340120

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