Berkshire Eagle Book Club

Our reviews: 'The Starless Sea'


The Book: "The Starless Sea" by Erin Morgenstern

Publisher: Doubleday; First Edition edition (Nov. 5, 2019)

Synopsis: Zachary Ezra Rawlins is a graduate student in Vermont when he discovers a mysterious book hidden in the stacks. As he turns the pages, entranced by tales of lovelorn prisoners, key collectors, and nameless acolytes, he reads something strange: a story from his own childhood. Bewildered by this inexplicable book and desperate to make sense of how his own life came to be recorded, Zachary uncovers a series of clues — a bee, a key, and a sword — that lead him to a masquerade party in New York, to a secret club, and through a doorway to an ancient library hidden far below the surface of the earth. What Zachary finds in this curious place is more than just a buried home for books and their guardians — it is a place of lost cities and seas, lovers who pass notes under doors and across time, and of stories whispered by the dead. Zachary learns of those who have sacrificed much to protect this realm, relinquishing their sight and their tongues to preserve this archive, and also of those who are intent on its destruction. Together with Mirabel, a fierce, pink-haired protector of the place, and Dorian, a handsome, barefoot man with shifting alliances, Zachary travels the twisting tunnels, darkened stairwells, crowded ballrooms, and sweetly soaked shores of this magical world, discovering his purpose — in both the mysterious book and in his own life.

Eight years since "The Night Circus," Erin Morgenstern's "The Starless Sea" was worth waiting for. A lyrical, beautiful, metafictive mystery that I've described as Narnia, if Narnia were a library, "The Starless Sea" was the best book I read in 2019.

Grad student Zachary Ezra Rawlins comes across a mysterious book in his college library, many years after failing to open a door into another place: a library housing a collection of all narrative, existing on the last port on the diminished Starless Sea. In trying to unravel the mysteries of this book, he finds himself thrown into a mission to rescue the mysterious storyteller Dorian, and ultimately to decipher the secrets of this world.

This book is complicated, intensely intricate and hugely successful, metafictive without being wall-breaky or narcissistic. The mystery pulls the reader along at a breakneck pace that belies its intimidating page count. I spent the whole book engrossed, reading and rereading, trying to solve the mysteries myself as I went, but it isn't necessary. Feel free to sit back and wait for this book to reveal itself to you. The answers will come.

Meggie Baker, calendar editor

A well-written story is one that leaves us wanting more when it has come to an end. Well-written characters are the ones we have hopes and dreams for far beyond the pages that were written. We begin to dream up new quests that need to be completed, new adventures, new companions and villains and, sometimes, new loves. Or, sometimes, out of the blue, we think of those characters and ponder what happened to them. The characters, although created by the authors who first dreamed of them, stay with us and become our own.

In "The Starless Sea," Erin Morgenstern has created an underground world filled with books and a sea of honey; where the stories and fables are true, yet fiction; where a pirate and a girl are metaphors, and fate and time are star-crossed lovers. She has given us a world filled with delicately-crafted yet dense prose dripping with symbols and intricate details that are clues to unlocking the true identities of many of its characters. Her characters, like the world she has created, are multi-layered, complex and full of secrets. It is all too easy to fall in love with the reluctant hero, Zachary Ezra Rawlins, as he fumbles along on his quest; with Mirabel, the painter of magical doors, who is set on saving herself; with Dorian, the storyteller; and Lenore, a girl, who is an adventurer.

But Morgenstern is not kind in her storytelling; she does not offer up answers in a timely fashion and leaves the reader often with more questions than answers. This can be frustrating and confusing; as if the reader has attempted to read a "Choose Your Own Adventure" book in a straightforward manner, opting not to heed the warnings and ignoring the instructions to turn to a page that is not chronologically next. It is a bold choice that brings the reader back time and time again to seek out the answers that will be and are revealed. Unfortunately, I cannot say you will be satisfied when the book ends, as even now, weeks after I have finished it, I am still thinking about a pirate sailing on a sea of honey, an Owl King and what lies beyond a door marked with a key, a bee and a sword.

— Jennifer Huberdeau, UpCountry Magazine editor

"The Starless Sea" is a masterclass in storytelling.

The world Erin Morgenstern creates in just her second novel is spectacular and sprawling, with some of the most beautiful works of personification I've ever read.

It is truly wild the places you'll travel and people and things you'll meet over these 494 pages. This one is definitely worth your time, but you do have to really take the time."The Starless Sea" is quite an opus, that really requires you to put it down and give some thought to what you've just read. It's too deep a story to breeze through.

Morgenstern has a great premise to start, one that had me enthralled with rooting interest, eager to plow through the next chapter. Then she just kept going. The story goes one level too deep. It essentially packs all seven basic plots into one storyline. Part mystery, part hero's quest with a fascinating good vs. evil plot, that then spins into time travel and wedges in three or four love stories, all well jumping around with perspective.

On Page 315, Morgenstern, speaking as an omniscient narrator, writes, "He thinks he is almost there but he has so far to go."

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She's not kidding.

The protagonist is a manic pixie dream boy for bibliophiles — this whole book is going to be catnip for those who love nothing better than curling up with a good book found deep in the stacks of a library or independent book store, under three blankets with a classic cocktail. Bonus points if you're in snowy Vermont with actual cats. That could be off-putting to the wrong reader, but Zachary Ezra Rawlins is just enough of a blank slate that I could live the experience of The Starless Sea through him.

The journey is winding, but profound. At times, I found myself speaking out loud to no one in particular; questioning, arguing, cheering and approving.

This one usurped a lot my brain for the better part of two weeks, but it was a fun ride.

— Mike Walsh, sports reporter

I was the last one of our group to be handed a copy of "The Starless Sea" by Erin Morgenstern, and that was during the holidays. That being said, I read the nearly 500 pages in four days — not anywhere near the amount of time this book rightly deserves. The characters, main plot and side stories really deserve a reader's full attention and unhurried appreciation.

The first 150 pages were rough going, Morgenstern alternates chapters of the main story line with side tales, many of them fairy tales or myths. I was left lost and wandering through the book, much like the main character of Zachary. Then, I decided to let the book take me where it wanted to, without any questions — and I thoroughly enjoyed Zachary's journey and all of the vivid and endearing characters he encounters, and his sometimes perilous adventures. It was a delight to let Morgenstern's lyrical style of writing wash over me, almost like the honey of the Starless Sea.

As I write this, it's been three days since I finished reading the book. I've thought about it constantly since then, sad that there is no more of it to read and pondering ideas it raised. There were passages in the book I would have highlighted if the book had belonged to me because they were so profound or so lyrical. Is the book a metaphor for anything? I don't know. I do know I have to read it again, maybe next summer when I can devote more time to it. This is one of those books I'll never forget.

— Margaret Button, associate features editor

This book is an example of what a great book club, or group of fellow readers, can do. I would have never picked up "The Starless Sea" on my own — but I am so glad someone else in this group suggested it. Don't let the complex, twisting plots, talk of pirates and secret doors turn you away from this story that had us all talking, dissecting Erin Morgenstern's intricate worlds. I'm the kind of reader who prefers living in the present, with stories based in real time with real plausibility. But each door opened, each character introduced in Morgenstern's beautiful prose was told with such detail, clarity and beautiful imagery I couldn't help but live in that world. I actually found myself dreaming of this book each night after I had put it down before bed.

I also appreciated Morgenstern's sense of humor, poking fun at her own genre. Whenever I felt lost and slightly frustrated that I didn't know what was going on, Zachary would ask a character the same question I was thinking, "Wait, who is the Owl King?" Or when Dorian and Zachary both realized neither had looked in the obvious spot of inside the wardrobe (a nod to the similarities of this story to C. S. Lewis' "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," which by the way, I wasn't a fan of as a young reader) and the door opened an important portal to the next chapter of their story. While I didn't care what was behind Lewis' door to Narnia, I found I cared deeply what came next in Morgenstern's world.

Don't be afraid of this book; if you love reading, libraries, love stories and a good mystery — with chapters filled with beautiful scene-setting details — you'll want to open this door.

— Lindsey Hollenbaugh, managing editor of features


Our next book club pick is "Red At The Bone," by Jacqueline Woodson.

As the book opens in 2001, it is the evening of 16-year-old Melody's coming of age ceremony in her grandparents' Brooklyn brownstone. Watched lovingly by her relatives and friends, making her entrance to the music of Prince, she wears a special custom-made dress. But the event is not without poignancy. Sixteen years earlier, that very dress was measured and sewn for a different wearer: Melody's mother, for her own ceremony-- a celebration that ultimately never took place. Moving forward and backward in time, Woodson's taut and powerful new novel uncovers the role that history and community have played in the experiences, decisions, and relationships of these families, and in the life of the new child.

Read along with us and email Lindsey Hollenbaugh your thoughts to be included in our next book club edition, on the second Sunday of February. Email


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