By Ekta R. Garg, A.uthor
February 20, 2020
The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern
Release date: November 5, 2019
As an author working toward her first major publication, I want to make one thing clear: I think Erin Morgenstern is a genius. The kind who leaves your mouth dropped open in awe because her ideas deserve a moment of respect before you start gushing over them. The kind who breaks all of the rules and does it with aplomb and a wink because she got it right the first time.
The kind who makes you tear up when she gets it wrong.
Anyone who has followed me for a little while knows I adore The Night Circus. When I heard about The Starless Sea, I expected the same kind of breathless interaction with the book. The Night Circus reminded me why reading is important, why words and stories matter.
The Starless Sea proves that even geniuses can make mistakes.
First, though, I want to talk about what, as an author, I loved about The Starless Sea. The book, on a larger scale, may have failed for me and so many other fans and readers (and, maybe, even writers,) but there are still things to appreciate about it. The things that we love Morgenstern for regardless of that scale.
Her storytelling is exquisite. She invites readers in with a hushed, reverent voice that evokes old-world tales of grand adventures and heady romances. I’d love to see a collection of short stories from her, because I bet they’d be works of art all on their own and become an all-time bestseller. For instance, the short story in The Starless Sea titled “The Girl and the Feather” begins like this:
“Once there was a princess who refused to marry the prince she was meant to marry. Her family disowned her and she left her kingdom, trading her jewelry and the length of her hair for passage to the next kingdom, and then the next, and then the land beyond that which had no king and there she stayed.
“She was skilled at sewing so she set up a shop in a town that had no seamstress. No one knew she had been a princess, but it was the kind of place that did not ask questions about what you were before.”
Instantly, as an author, my mind begins whirling in a million different places, about the princess and why she didn’t want to marry the prince and how she managed to explain all that jewelry she sold. Authors love this kind of stuff; it feeds our own imaginations. It reiterates why we do what we do.
The book is full of flashes of brilliance. It also has some of the dullest moments I’ve ever read, and I don’t mean that with disrespect. If I’m going to be a published novelist, I have to be ready to evaluate the work of other authors. Even if it means I say what I don’t like. Even if they write whole books that I wished I hadn’t read.
I suppose, too, it’s been a long time since I’ve felt this way about another author. As I mentioned last week in my post as an editor, part of my mind is constantly ticking, examining the elements of books, wondering whether I might have done it better (and, in some instances, answering “yes” to that question.) I certainly don’t think I could write like Erin Morgenstern. Only she possesses that incredible imagination, that fount of creativity.
In a way, though, I view my letdown by The Starless Sea on two levels. One is as a reader. I desperately wanted to fall headlong into this book like I did with The Night Circus. I wanted to close the back cover wishing with all my might that the Starless Sea was a real place and wonder whether, if I wished hard enough with my eyes screwed shut, I could find myself there. The same way I’ve always felt about Narnia.
As an author, however, reading The Starless Sea, as bizarre as this might sound, was…calming. Reassuring. Encouraging even.
Writers make mistakes. We get it wrong time and time and time again before we finally get it right and find our audience. When we do, that audience craves our work and waits for it with eagerness and, yes, patience. In today’s world, that’s a big deal.
I felt the same way about Markus Zusak’s book Bridge of Clay, although not this deeply because while I have an attachment to The Book Thief, it’s a different kind of attachment. Still, I came away from Bridge of Clay with the same sense of disappointment but also clarity.
Writers, even the big names, are regular people. They’re not some ethereal beings dropped out of the sky. They’re…human.
They do the best they can to put out the story they believe needs to be told. Sometimes those stories land; sometimes they don’t. But they can still get published. They can still put their words out into the world for millions of people to read.
They can still be authors.
Now, don’t mistake what I’m saying. I don’t think this is a good book. I’ve read the reviews on Amazon and Goodreads by readers who have said they wanted their money back, that the book was nothing like The Night Circus, some who have even said they won’t bother donating their copies of The Starless Sea because they felt like it was such a waste of time they don’t want to waste anyone else’s. Like all of those readers, I’m just as disappointed and, quite frankly, confused by this massive novel.
I wanted it to be something different, entirely. I almost wish Erin Morgenstern had the opportunity to say, “Oops, sorry, guys, just give me six months and I’ll fix it.” Because there’s a lot that needed fixing in this book.
But by the same token, my own dreams of being a published novelist don’t seem so far out of reach now. I don’t feel like I’m trying to tread my way through a sea of honey to make it to the opposite shore. I don’t worry that my words aren’t good enough for “the readers.” The readers are out there and even in this digital age, where we have everything on hand in seconds, they want to invest their time and energy in authors they love. They’re willing to wait for those authors.
One day those readers could love my work as much as they loved The Night Circus. I have the potential to make them just as excited, just as invested, but hopefully never as disappointed, with subsequent novels. With the right time and effort and fortitude, I can put my books into the world.
I can be a well-loved author too.