Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Night Circus (Review)

Erin Morgenstern
Doubleday, New York: 2011

“The circus arrives without warning.  No announcements precede it, no paper notices on downtown posts and billboards, no mentions or advertisements in local newspapers. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not.”

This is the story of a dreamlike, magical circus that is colored only in white, black, and grey. It opens at dusk and closes at dawn. The patrons marvel at the otherworldly perfection of its acts, food, and ethos; but although it fills a void in their souls, they do not comprehend the reality of the magic that holds it all together. To them it is simply a good show. Its true nature, however, is different. It is actually the arena in which two young people, bound into a magical contest about which they know little, must compete publically for many years. The competitors grow to know each other through the marvels that each builds with magic. In time, their relationship leads to a love that surely cannot survive.

Morgenstern is very, very good at evoking atmosphere and hinting at mysterious back stories while displaying a cast of characters who are varied and colorful. She tells the tale through a collection of vignettes that span many years. Each opens with arresting language, such as: “The man billed as Prospero the Enchanter receives a fair amount of correspondence via the theater office, but this is the first envelope addressed to him that contains a suicide note, and it is also the first to arrive carefully pinned to the coat of a five-year-old girl.” However, I must admit that as I worked my way through the novel, I began to feel impatient with the lovely descriptions and characterizations, because they did not always seem to farther the plot. Some were clearly developments of a theme, but others felt like authorial self-indulgence. Morgenstern’s weakness is her command of the overall story proportions. This flaw is not uncommon in an author’s first novel. By the time the climax arrived, it felt a bit short, a bit predictable, and rather disconnected from the rest of the story. Perhaps worse, the final, wrap-up dialogue felt like an attempt to wring a postmodern moral out of a mystical fairytale and left me wishing for subtler handling.

As a book about a magical circus, the novel is quite successful. The circus will linger in my mind the way that an actual character might. As a love story, however, it failed to fully engage or satisfy me. In part this is because I liked one half of the love story (the woman) a great deal, and was not very impressed by the man. My dissatisfaction is also connected to a flaw that many storytellers struggle with: an author who wishes to maintain a feeling of mystery cannot become explicit, or the mystery is lost. An author who wants to maintain an otherworldly feeling must stay in the other world. Yet authors are always tempted to pull back the curtain (even though almost everyone agrees that a movie about aliens or monsters is a great deal more frightening when the creatures are unseen, few movies resist the temptation to show its aliens). The same principle applies to this kind of drawn-out, epic love story: tension ought to be maintained. Two people who gaze at each other across an abyss, trapped and helpless, are actually more interesting than two people who (like these protagonists) go ahead and have sex at a random moment because their chemistry is so strong. In the latter situation, the characters merely fulfill the role that many a romance-novel couple has displayed before. The act of lovemaking is made less. It becomes merely a physical action on the same plane as scarfing down a chocolate cake or buying something one cannot afford. Regardless of one’s moral beliefs, it is artistically bad. I wish Morgenstern had further developed the fascinating concept that the characters’ magical feats were love letters to each other, instead of shifting the focus to their physical attraction. Overall, I enjoyed the book, although I was less impressed at the end than I was at the beginning.  

Linking-up with What We're Reading Wednesday.


  1. This is the second very good & thorough review I've read of this book. It reinforces to me that, while the book may be good, it's really not for me. Thanks for all the work you've put into the review.

  2. I second all of your thoughts. Well said.

  3. What an interesting premise - thanks for the share!

  4. Very nice review. I also had a mixed reaction to this book. It had been so hyped and received such great advanced praise that my expectations were raised far too high. I couldn't help but be disappointed and I was. It was beautifully descriptive as you say, but I couldn't say much for the characters or plot.


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