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.)

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern


“You step into a bright, open courtyard surrounded by striped tents.
Curving pathways along the perimeter lead away from the courtyard, turning into unseen mysteries dotted with twinkling lights.
There are vendors traversing the crowd around you, selling refreshments and oddities, creations flavored with vanilla and honey, chocolate and cinnamon.
A contortionist in a sparkling black costume twists on a platform nearby, bending her body into impossible shapes.
A juggler tosses globes of black and white and silver high into the air, where they seem to hover before falling again into his hands, his attentive spectators applauding.
All bathed in glowing light.
The light emanates from a large bonfire in the center of the courtyard.
As you walk closer, you can see that it sits in a wide black iron cauldron, balanced on a number of clawed feet. Where the rim of a cauldron would be, it breaks into long strips of curling iron, as though it has been melted and pulled apart like taffy. The curling iron continues up until it curls back into itself, weaving in and out amongst the other curls, giving it the cage-like effect. The flames are visible in the gaps between and rising slightly above. They are obscured only at the bottom, so it is impossible to tell what is burning, if it is wood or coal or something else entirely.
The flames are not yellow or orange, but white as snow as they dance.”

Within these pages is a challenge set up for two young illusionists which is a test of endurance, not skill. “The one who survives is the victor…the winner lives, the loser dies. That’s how the game ends.”

Unless the two follow a different path, taking their own desires into consideration.

Hector chooses his daughter, Clara, and Alexander chooses the boy, Marco, and these children are ‘bound’ to each other with rings which melt into their fingers. With these rings, they have become pawns much like chess pieces on a board. They do not know of each other’s existence at first, and when they do meet, they fall deeply and terribly in love.

Is there any other way to fall in love but to sacrifice everything for it? To lose oneself in the possibilities? For life without the one you love would surely be worse than being the loser in such a game. Perhaps in a competition, emerging as victor is not the most important conclusion to a game. Perhaps it is coming away with what you deem most valuable.

The night circus is an illustration of life, I think, told in an incredibly imaginative way. I loved the black and white circus tents which appear only at night, the rêveurs who follow it wearing their scarves of red, the stories of the contortionist, and the illusionists, and the twins named Poppet and Widget. (Because of the former, I had to place my Little Red Poppet in the picture with the book; clearly she could belong to the circus with her red cloak, ruffled collar, and winsome spirit.)

There is a burning cauldron set upon spirals of white and black, an Ice Garden with frosty leaves, caramel described more deliciously than I can record it here, described as if I could taste it on the page.

Yet as wonderful and magical as a circus can be, there is an element of danger under its tents. Nothing is certain, and much of what goes on is an illusion of beauty. Of skill. Of strength. So who controls us? Are we in charge of our own destiny? Is there a “magician” who causes us to do his bidding?  And most importantly, what happens when we are tired of carrying it all on our own shoulders? Perhaps jumping into the burning cauldron, with its purifying flames, is indeed the only choice for those brave enough to choose their own fate.

Passages I loved:

~”People see what they wish to see. And in most cases, what they are told that they see.” (p. 28)

~”The past stays on you the way powdered sugar stays on your fingers. Some people can get rid of it but it’s still there, the events and things that pushed you to where you are now. I can…well, read isn’t the right word, but it’s not the right word for what Poppet does with the stars, either.” (p. 198)

~”I am tired of trying to hold things together that cannot be held,” Celia says when he approaches her. “Trying to control what cannot be controlled. I am tired of denying myself what I want for fear of breaking things I cannot fix. They will break no matter what we do.” (p. 295)