The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern. (Frankly, I’m not sure I entirely get it.)

It’s a litmus test: If you believe enough to try to open a painted door you’re more likely to believe in wherever it leads. (p. 154)

I loved The Night Circus, and I loved The Starless Sea. Erin Morgenstern creates worlds within worlds, multi-layered and multi-faceted, such that I don’t expect to have everything tie completely together until the bitter end.

Maybe that’s the problem. I should read as Murakami has said, “Wide open to possibilities.”

I am open, I am sure about that. I embrace the doors both painted in trompe l’oiel and free standing. I adore keys hanging from ribbons in the collector’s garden, and other ribbons (entwined around bodies) with stories written on them. I admire a home filled with books, and wine bottles, and teacups, and air smelling like smoke and honey. I have folded myriads of paper stars, well aware of their magical qualities, and I’m thrilled about the adventure of visiting the Harbor by the Starless Sea, or taking a boat through blue confetti.

Her novel is an imaginative dream.

But, between the dollhouse, and the Harbor, and the burning buildings, a sea made of golden honey, and the way that Fate and Time fell in love, I’m a little bewildered.

I only know that Zachary Ezra Rawlins, the son of a fortune-teller, found Sweet Sorrows in the university library (by fate?) and thus set out on a search to find out more about himself. (In that sense, The Starless Sea can be universal: don’t we all long to know more about ourselves, such as what the past has meant and what the future will bring? These things are not for us to know, necessarily, but I wonder if that’s not a large reason why I keep such in-depth Traveler’s Notebooks.)

In the course of his quest he comes across many characters beginning with Mirabel, dressed as Max from Where The Wild Things Are, at a ball. He meets Dorian, with whom he falls in love. And, he is missing from the ‘real world’ for days as he searches behind doors (regretting the red painted one he never opened as a child), drinks unknown liquids labeled with directions to partake, and throws six dice which all land on Hearts.

There are references to Alice in Wonderland, of course, and many other beloved novels. I kept track of most of them as I read, finding: The Catcher in The Rye; The Shadow of The Wind; The Long Goodbye; Playback; The Big Sleep; The Age of Fable, or Beauties of Mythology; This Side of Paradise; The Princess Bride; The Shining; King Lear, a Wrinkle in Time; The Secret History.

I will be sailing The Starless Sea for a long time in my mind, settling on this dialogue as I ponder an oft repeated phrase within this novel:

“To Seeking,” the Star Merchant said as their wine was refilled.

”To Finding,” came the traditional response. (p. 114)

(Find a wonderful review from Jeanne at Necromancy Never Pays here.)

20 thoughts on “The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern. (Frankly, I’m not sure I entirely get it.)”

  1. Hmmm. So many books referenced. I know I’d get very lost in this type of book. I don’t know it it’d be a book for me. You just mentioned Alice, and I feel for reading it again. 🙂


    1. Oddly enough, I have NEVER liked Alice in Wonderland. But, most all of the other ones listed here are dearly loved by me. This is a book that I could turn around and begin rereading tonight. There is so much here! So much to absorb! So much that I fear passed me by the first time around. (On the other hand, I do not find solutions to emotional dilemmas in a secular world; so, a little bit of magic goes a long way with me.)

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I didn’t even try to keep track of all the literary allusions. It was a fun book, though, if you didn’t think about it too hard (I reviewed it on Nov. 25, 2019).


    1. I’m so glad you left a link to your review, Jeanne. I enjoyed reading it, and have since left a link to it here. It was good to know we had similar feelings/thoughts while we were reading. (One more door?!)


  3. I saw this book at the local bookstore the other day and wondered if it would be good. So glad to read your review here on it. I think I’ll check to see how long the waiting list is for it at my library. Or is this one to buy and have on your shelf so you don’t have to worry about library due dates? 🙂


    1. What I loved about it was the incredible imagination and atmosphere. I wanted to “go there” right away, see the Harbor, the Sea, the library, meet the people. I do think it would be one to keep on one’s shelf; I have mine tucked away right beside
      The Night Circus, both of which I was fortunate enough to have signed by Erin Morgenstern herself.


      1. Oooo….a signed copy! How nice! Ok. So I’m tempted then to just go buy the book. I’ve not read Night Circus either but I have heard a lot of good reviews about it. Wondering if I should buy it too…… 🙂


  4. I really loved ‘The Night Circus’ and I’m looking forward to reading this. I’m also looking to read more unusual books this year, so may be this is one to start with!


    1. I loved The Night Circus, too. I like how you said “unusual books” for this certainly qualifies as Erin can create a world, a story, like no other. Her imagination is wonderful to me!


  5. I haven’t even read The Night Circus! This one sounds like a delightful read, although I’m not sure if I’d get lost in that multi-layered and multi-faceted theme. ;p


    1. It is easy to get lost, I think, as the story is not very linear; we keep switching perspective not only in setting and time, but with different characters in time. I liked it, but I could not follow it well if I picked it up and put it down over the course of a few weeks. Best to plunge on ahead! Also, if you’ve read neither, I would start with The Night Circus which (to me) was a little easier to follow.


  6. I’m nearly finished listening to this on audiobook and have found it both mesmerising and confusing. I started loving it and not wanting to stop listening. Then about 3/4 of the way through I must have stopped concentrating and I am now completely lost. I still like it but am really not sure where the book is going and am really hoping that the ending will give some meaning to the book.


    1. I have great admiration for anyone who could follow along with this on audio; I could barely keep it all straight from the page! 😉 I started out loving it, too, and then became a bit confused with some of the story’s aspects. The Owl King? Still not sure who he was/is…

      Once I got to the end I found some resolution for our lead character Ezra, but there wasn’t a satisfying, clear cut conclusion for me. Maybe that’s how it is with Fate and Time, though. Maybe the story is the pirate and the acolyte and the keepers and the key collectors and the broken statues and ribbons and stories and they all fit into a great theme of what life is like: not always clear, certainly not always linear in one’s understanding.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. This sounds like one that will require great concentration, so I need to find the right time to give it a try. Not on one of our road trips, that’s for certain! But I’m glad you have mentioned that it is not the type of book to listen to. That was my first inclination since I loved listening to The Night Circus. I can still picture scenes from that marvelous story!


    1. You are a much better listener than I am, you could do very well with it on audio as you enjoyed listening to The Night Circus. I listened to it, after reading it a few years before, and I was still lost!😌


  8. I’m not too much of a fan for fantasies or magical realism if this one is of such genres. However, the allusions to all those book titles make me curious! Hmmm…


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