I read Erin Morgenstern’s first novel, The Night Circus, years ago. I liked it. I can’t say I loved it, because I don’t remember it that strongly. Having read The Starless Sea, I question if I enjoyed The Night Circus at all because Morgenstern’s sophomore release isn’t That Great. I wanted to love it.
The story doesn’t make sense. It’s written with a non-linear narrative, but I’m a sucker for a juicy, well-written non-linear narrative, so it wasn’t that. It was that nothing and no one had a motivation or basis in the novel.
Zachary Ezra Rawlins is the protagonist, which you know because his full name is repeated as the first words of the majority of the chapters, bludgeoning readers with his Importance. His tag (“the son of the fortune-teller”) is also oft repeated. Zachary Ezra Rawlins walks along kind of letting things happen to him for some unclear reason. Around page 150, I questioned if this novel was any good, because I didn’t feel connected to the protagonist or his motivations. There are multiple repeated symbols (bees, keys, swords, hearts, crowns, honey, owls, cats, the moon, etc.). I felt that they are symbols because they are repeated, and because they are repeated they are symbolic. The symbols are used in a universal sense, but they end up being meaningful only in very specific ways to Zachary Ezra Rawlins and his love interest.
Morgenstern is often cited as a wordsmith, and fans love her writing style. I found it irritating. She tries to say so much that not much is said at all. Words just to be words are not helpful. There is no basis to the melodic prose and it makes the story nonsensical.
The story gets interesting in the last sixth part (the novel is divided into VI books). Here, a secondary character, Kat, who has been absent for most of the novel, reappears to give backstory. Yes, it’s the whole non-linear thing, but the reader has been slogging along with clueless Zachary Ezra Rawlins this whole time not knowing why. Kat is an interesting and useful character. She has motivation, and moves the story along in a meaningful way.
I will grant that perhaps I didn’t “understand” the novel. Perhaps the lack of motivation is part of the theme of the novel (something something about fate and fortunes). Zachary Ezra Rawlins studies Emerging Media (video games), and he and Kat dialogue about Choose Your Own Adventure type games and narrative (Morgenstern herself is a gamer). Perhaps him bumbling along his adventure is part of the theme of the novel as well. It’s possible that Zachary Ezra Rawlins knows he’s supposed to do something because he read about himself in a book, again bringing about questions of fate and choice, but none of it is dissected or concluded in a satisfying manner. Book VI made the novel alright. The nearly 400 pages of luxuriant, comma-filled, pop-culture laden prose led by Zachary Ezra Rawlins, who I didn’t care about, wasn’t great.