By the Book - Literary Life Lessons

By the Book #13 – The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern

I knew I was going to love Erin Morgenstern's The Starless Sea - until I started reading it... Want to know why? Read on!

What does your bubble look like? That comfortable place inside your head where all the things you like are gathered together? It’s nice, isn’t it? But would you write an entire book about it? I wouldn’t. I think it would bore people who wouldn’t be inside of it (meaning everyone but me). Erin Morgenstern’s latest novel, The Starless Sea, however, seems to be a novel just about that – and in my opinion, her bubble burst. Want to know why? Read on!

This book uses all the right ingredients: books, stories, mysteries, and love. It’s about an intelligent, solitary queer man , who studies games and loves books. He has a favourite cocktail, a reading wardrobe, and a quirky friend who supports him. One day, he stumbles upon a rare, mysterious book which the library hasn’t catalogued, and he sets out on an adventure to find out what it means. Enter mysterious person one, mysterious person number two, more mysterious books, and a mysterious world underneath our own, filled with yet another collection of mysterious books and persons. Sounds good, doesn’t it? When I heard about this book, I knew I would love it. When I was about a hundred pages in, I did the exact opposite.

Do you know the saying Write about what you know? Erin Morgenstern does. It’s like she took her brain apart, plucking from it all that she loves, and put it carefully (well, actually, not so carefully) together inside her latest book, The Starless Sea. This book is her bubble, and, like every like-minded book-loving person, I love each individual aspect about it. However, they completely fail to work as a coherent novel, and that’s because Morgenstern wrote about what she knew, but somehow didn’t seem to know how these separate things could make sense as a whole.

Do you know the saying Kill Your Darlings? It’s tough, but sometimes you have to get rid of some things you like in order to make a story work. And that’s what is so frustrating about it: this book didn’t kill any darlings, but rather added more and more to them until it was drowning in them. Somehow The Starless Sea ended up more like a new version of “These are a few of my favourite things” from The Sound of Music than an actual novel. And I, for one, prefer the latter. While reading, you often wonder what the book is about, what happens, and where on earth it might be going. For instance, what’s with the name Zachary Ezra Rawlins? Is this some kind of joke I don’t understand? And what about the stories within stories, the keys, bees, and swords – and the hearts and owls, and the I can’t even remember other weird things? Somebody help me, please! … And that’s what this book is like – for over five hundred pages.

Do you know the saying Art imitates life? This book is a clear reflection of what Erin Morgenstern considers the perfect life. It would be a life surrounded by books, by strangers, by mysteries, and one type of cocktail. It’s a life that suits her and her alone, and that’s why The Starless Sea seems to make sense only to her. When it comes to this book imitating life, however, part of it does ring true: it’s just as messy, just as chaotic, and, very often, just as frustrating.

Do you know why I keep asking if you know these sayings? It’s because I want to make sure you and I are on the same page. I want to be sure that you know what I’m talking about. And that’s why The Starless Sea is such an exasperating read: Erin Morgenstern seems not to be bothered with her audience at all, but instead focuses on what’s inside her bubble. From the very first page, the story line plays second fiddle to the vortex of obscure references and the personal preferences the reader is thrown into, but is unable to get out of. What you’re left with after finishing the book, is a feeling of intense confusion and annoyance; the bubble has burst.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from reading The Starless Sea, it’s that I should be more aware of my own bubble. What do I like? Why do I like these things? Are they genuinely good, or is it just my personal taste? And, most importantly: have I bored people to death by talking about the things I love for hours on end? If so, and if you’re reading this: I’m very sorry. But please bear in mind: I’ve never been as boring as this book. I hope.

Have you ever read a book that you were thoroughly disappointed by? What did you think of this book? Let me know in the comments! Also, don’t forget to follow me for more book musings!


  1. That’s a first. A review about a book you ultimately don’t like. Well said by the way. But how disturbing this must be for miss Morgenstern. Usually your comments press someone to read their book immediately. This time it seems to me most people will never touch it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It is a first, isn’t it? But I simply couldn’t make myself appreciate it – and that’s why I will never recommend this book. Also, if this post eventually reached Ms Morgenstern, I’d be very happy indeed!


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