Book Review: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

On September 13, I scurried to Vroman’s bookstore in Pasadena for a copy of Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, released earlier that day. For months, I had been bombarded by the press, media, and hype surrounding Morgenstern’s first novel. The Wall Street Journal went so far as to suggest it might be the bestselling successor to Harry Potter. A WSJ review less than a month later panned the novel. Doubleday’s media blitz was unlike any I’d ever seen. They heavily promoted the book on Twitter and other forms of social media, perhaps partially because of Morgenstern’s background as a blogger. My intense need to keep up with publishing industry trends meant I had to test the hype myself.

A couple things should be said up front: I loved the book and couldn’t put it down. That said, the hype surrounding the novel went overboard (to be fair, that’s a Doubleday problem, not an author problem). All writing (with a couple exceptions perhaps) can be improved upon.

Celia and Marco were chosen as children to take part in a competition of magic and illusion. Hector Bowen, Celia’s father, also known as Prospero the Enchanter, and Marco’s guardian, Alexander, have found contestants for their competitions many times before. Neither Celia nor Marco knows who the other is and neither knows how the competition ends. The venue, orchestrated in large part by Alexander, is the newly formed Le Cirque des Rêves, a magical circus that opens at nightfall and closes at dusk. Celia earns the role of illusionist; Marco serves as the circus proprietor’s assistant. The two top each other, creating tents of elaborate illusions, and eventually fall in love. But the competition has dragged everyone else into its orbit, endangering all of their lives– from Isobel, the card reader, to Tsukiko the contortionist, to Poppet and Widget, twins born the opening night of the circus. From the book jacket, the reader knows that the only way Celia or Marco can be named victor is for the other one to die.

The Night Circus belongs in the circle of commercial fiction, more in line with Twilight than Harry Potter. The writing was several notches above that of Stephenie Meyer, but fell short of J.K. Rowling, in my opinion. Scenes could feel repetitive due, in part, to the story’s fascination– and perhaps overdependence– on color as a descriptive and thematic element. As the narrative progressed, the writing of the love story grew trite and overly sentimental at times.

Despite similarities already noted by the media, The Night Circus need to be evaluated independently of other publishing trends.

Reading The Night Circus catapults the audience into this dream-like world. It weaves a kind of trance over the reader. I began the book on an early morning plane flight Thursday and finished Friday night (in between, I moved 3,000 miles away). The moment I delved back into the last 80 pages, the lapse of time had been completely forgotten. The tactic used to achieve this immersion is smart, but mildly disruptive. The first several pages begin in second-person singular, mimicking the experience of milling about the circus for the reader. The second-person returns half a dozen or so times, usually signaling a pause or major change in the story. Even when the story is broken by the vignettes, the technique remains remarkably effective.

The book’s pacing seemed a bit off. The centerpiece of the novel, the love story, only truly takes shape about 200 pages into a 387-page book. There isn’t enough time for development, although some occurs in the set-up at the beginning of the story. My greatest criticism was that there wasn’t enough in general– which I rarely say about books pushing 400 pages.

Morgenstern spreads herself too thin among characters. The characters were skeletons whose stories needed greater background and motivation. A myriad of secondary characters dot the landscape of the novel. Many gave the impression that there was much more to their lives, but those weren’t explained. One woman, a former player in the competition in which Celia and Marco now engage, gives a quick two-sentence overview of her past. It wasn’t enough to define and build her character. The lack of back story also had consequences for Celia and Marco. Their stories, beginning from childhood, are more fully explained, but by no means full. Their love story appeared more pushed than organically developed. Morgenstern writes that their hands touching could warm a room. That was certainly not what I felt. The passion seemed forced. In a way, the characters’ murky pasts add to the mystery of Le Cirque des Rêves, but the lack of information proves unsatisfactory for the reader.

Morgenstern hasn’t ruled out the possibility of a sequel. An expansion will hopefully allow her to fully capitalize on the life stories of the characters (what happens to Bailey and Poppet?). I would stand in line to buy it. We all could use a little more magic.

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