The Night Circus
“We lead strange lives chasing our dreams around from place to place.”
In The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern paints a wonderful, meticulously-detailed picture of a monochromatic circus teeming with fantasy, delight, and magic, which “arrives without warning” and, as the elaborate, mysterious sign over its gates states, is only open from dusk until dawn. The only problem is that this is not a picture — it’s a book. It’s a story. And way too many pages are wasted on excessive, over-indulgent description of the dazzling circus that could have been allotted to more substantial plot and character development.
We’re readers. We do like to use our imagination.
I enjoyed this book, but I could not love it. Erin Morgenstern is an excellent writer, and the particular nuances of the circus, the elaborate, detail-driven writing, truly is beautiful. I can see the circus in my mind, as clearly as it is described. But I didn’t connect with the story at all, because it came too late in the book. There were too many inconsistencies and ambiguities throughout, and I felt impatient with the languid, leisurely suspense that Morgenstern so aptly (and annoyingly) executed. It was meant to keep you on the edge of your seat, but it spans over 16 years, flipping back and forth, and it’s altogether tiring. There’s so much description that the story actually feels incomplete. At the end, I had more questions than answers, more misgivings than praise. There is a point in the book when one character describes another as “overly complicated and covert” — this is how I feel about The Night Circus.
The premise of the book is an (apparently) centuries-old competition between the protégés, Celia and Marco, of two (apparently) ageless magicians: Hector Bowen, known by his stage name Prospero the Enchanter (a nod to Shakespeare’s The Tempest) and Alexander (though this is not his real name, and no, you will never know what it is). I am repeatedly saying “apparently” because these assumptions are never addressed; rather, it’s left up to the reader to decide.
Celia is the unwanted daughter of Prospero, whose mother sent her to him after committing suicide. Alexander plucks Marco out of an orphanage and educates him by distance, never entering his apartment and making rare appearances. He is described as a “father-figure” towards the end of the book, but I didn’t feel that connection.
I found the Shakespeare reference extraneous, considering the way it’s handled — for those who have read The Tempest, we get it: in the play, Prospero is a well-intentioned magician with a daughter, Miranda, for whom he uses magic to avenge, protect and restore to society. Morgenstern, at the beginning, states that Prospero would call his daughter, Celia, “Miranda”, though there’s no correlation to this and the play. And in the book, unlike Shakespeare’s character, Prospero is impassive to the fact that he essentially sets his daughter up for potential slaughter. This is not to say that every literary allusion has to be extrapolated, but it’s just an example of the book’s consistent lack of history, explanation, or relevance.
Celia and Marco are brought up by Alexander (referred to as A.H—) and Prospero, learning different magical methodology from two different schools of thought. Who ARE Alexander and Prospero? You will never find out. If there was more information on the two teachers or the history of the game, it would have been much more interesting. Instead, we find out most of the information, but not all of it, starting on page 378 (the book is 387 pages long). And even then, the explanation remains vague. The “competitors” never actually compete. They are unaware of how to play this game that they are raised to play and, unbeknownst to them (or anyone else), the circus is chosen as the venue for the ultimate showdown.
This, by the way, never happens.
There is also supposed to be a love story at play, and the book is advertised as such, but it was underwhelming and lifeless; I don’t feel any actual “spark”, so to say, between Celia and Marco. In fact, I felt more of a connection between Marco and Isobel than Celia and Marco.
Another unnecessary and distracting element of the book: going back and forth in time, overlapping and intertwining, sometimes from a few months to a few years. I think this was supposed to have some type of suspense-building, mysterious effect but it seemed rather pointless. There are no “WOW” moments in this book, though there could have been. There is no explanation on the magic, or the restraints (or lack thereof?) of it. It fell flat.
This review sounds completely negative, but I did like the idea and, of course, the circus, vividly illustrated. I just think so much more could have been done with it. Allison Flood’s review in The Guardian says that the book has been “tipped in the US as the next Harry Potter,” with the producers of Twilight set to bring the story to film. This is a gross overstatement, considering the two stories are not in any way similar, nor are they in the same league of brilliance.
My questions at the end: What do the tarot cards mean? The angel? Isobel’s effect? Why was Bailey’s story important? Is Prospero really dead? And are they ultimately free? They’re confined within the circus, trapped in a venue that they’ve always been bound to. Doubleday touts it as “a treat for the senses”. True. But not for the mind.
I remember the circus more than the story.
The Night Circus could have been amazing, but, about halfway through, it lost its magic.
Really enjoyed reading your review, Cristina! Saw you post about it briefly on Twitter the other day so I was looking forward to it.
Its too bad the book was overindulgent 😦 I feel the same way about a lot of books these days: the ideas are great, but not executed well.
I’ve been dying to read this, but it sounds like I would also get easily frustrated…
Thanks for the review…can’t wait to read more! 🙂
Thanks for reading, Ikhlas! Ya, you would definitely get frustrated. I wanted to read it based on all of the hype (Indigo Book of the Year and whatnot), and I wished I loved it, but it was disappointing.
100% agree with your review. Just got my paperback copy yesterday and after months of holding back myself from reading reviews of this book (so that I can judge it myself), I found yours to be the exact review i would’ve given (not as articulate though hehehe).
I really wanted to love this book, but I just couldn’t. it wasn’t enough.
p.s I adore Herr Thiessen. I think he stole the spotlight =)
Hi, thanks for the review. I personally like long-winded stories! I love Russian and Victorian English authors who had long long winters of staying indoors to get through with a story.
I have posted the Tarot meanings here if you are still interested: http://mawannabeahippie.wordpress.com/2012/07/31/tarot-meanings-in-the-night-circus-erin-morgenstern/