The Night Circus, by Erin Morganstern – Book Review

Purportedly a love story of epic proportions, the circus is arguably the main event in The Night Circus, Erin Morganstern’s whimsical and wildly descriptive debut novel. Le Circque de Rêves (as it is called) is a mysterious traveling circus which never announces its arrival, but instead appears suddenly, opening its doors at nightfall and closing them at dawn. A mystical place, designed completely in black and white and run by magic and illusion, it is entrancing to visitors who know little about the way it is run. They know even less about the gentle, elegant battle for supremacy taking place between Celia and Marco, two talented young magicians who are trained in different schools of magical ideology. The challenge continues over the course of many years, and as the stakes become clear it is increasingly difficult for either magician to take the necessary steps to win. Each is troubled by the sacrifices involved, and, the little fact that they have fallen in love.

The Night Circus did not prove to be an easy read for me. My book club selected it over the summer, long before its September release date. Though half of them had read advanced copies and loved it, and the other half eagerly looked forward to it, it wasn’t a book that I was excited about. The last book I read about a circus was Ray Bradbury’s 1962 novel Something Wicked This Way Comes. Descriptions of final showdowns between good and evil in Bradbury’s novel, which I  wanted to enjoy but had issues with, had already put me in the mind of (and put me off) The Night Circus, which was similarly described though it turned out to be different in execution.

The Night Circus develops slowly and initially I thought I was going to enjoy reading it immensely. Celia and Marco are essentially orphans, one of them possessing extraordinary natural magical talent, and the other taken from their only known home to be schooled in the illusive arts. As the circus develops to showcase to their abilities, readers are treated to delicious descriptions of different tents, performers and acts involved. Chapters alternate erratically through the years, and are interspersed with second person perspectives designed to make vivid and life like walk-throughs of the circus possible. Unfortunately, characterization of the young lovers and others involved with the creation and running of the circus pales in comparison. I just didn’t find there was enough meat or motivations in their stories to keep me interested. Their paths were only outlined, but not fully explored. The magicians seem to fall in love mainly because they have had such stunted upbringings, and magic is the only way they connect with the world. They take great comfort in knowing that each understands the others creations. I could see how they would be enamored with each other, but with nothing more than a handful of meetings over the years, their relationship lacked urgency for me.

Morganstern’s book is constructed much like the circus of her imagination. There are beautiful passages to read, clever constructions of changing narrative points of view, alternating time periods, and bursts of color and intensity, but no real depth. Usually I would say that a novel like this was plot driven, but oddly that’s not that case here. The plot just advances really slowly(the time displacement accentuates that, I think), but without enough heat to bring it all together. When I finally got to the bottom of some of the book’s mysteries, the reveal was anticlimactic. That said, I enjoyed the writing quite a lot. Morganstern has a way with words, and there were times that I was absorbed in, and delighted by, her depictions. More fully realized characters would have made this a hit for me, but without them The Night Circus failed to thrive.

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  1. Your thoughts on this one were a lot like Aarti’s. We discussed this book at length over email, and she was concerned over the lack of substance in the characters and the relationships between them. She also felt like the plot was not handled well either, so it’s interesting for me to now read your similar thoughts. I told her at the time that we were discussing the book that I could see her points, but when I was reading, I was filling up the holes with my own emotions and thoughts, and only really leaned heavily on the author’s perceptions of the circus and it’s magical descriptions. I always think it’s so interesting the way that different readers react to the same material. Great and very intelligent review. I enjoyed it immensely.

  2. I love your review. And it’s definitely nice to see a well constructed argument as to why it didn’t work so well. I think it got me in just the right mood or I’d have had a problem with the pacing, too.

  3. I am usually pretty critical of books and tend to not like the ones that others love, but I was totally swept-up by the imagery. The world she created made-up for the stuff that was lacking. Had the world not been so well crafted, the love story itself would not have been able to stand on its own. This is one of those instances where an author took a very common story, put it in a remarkable setting and then let imagination takes its course.

  4. I just saw another review today that was less than glowing (Alyce). I have the book, but have held off reading it simply becuase it is just too much at this point. I will wait for the right time to pick it up. I thought about audio, but based on past experience, Jim Dale will always be Harry Potter to the point of distraction.

  5. I had a very similar reaction to this one. Overall, it fell flat for me, but there were some very strong aspects. Ultimately, I need a more exciting plot or more character development.

  6. I loved your review. I decided that I need to read this so I requested it from my library. I’ll feel a lot better just taking it back if I can’t get into it.

    Sorry I’ve been MIA on your blog!!!

  7. I really enjoyed the read – but I also really enjoyed your review. I too would have enjoyed deeper character development but believe I was so caught up in the magic of the circus that it became a character in itself – and one I thoroughly enjoyed.

  8. I loved this book. Looking back I can see some of the points you and others have brought up but I didn’t notice them at the time, I was too caught up in the magic. I am glad i read it before the hype and reviews came out

  9. I agree with you completely. After all of the buzz I thought I would be totally swept up in the magic of this book and then I just had a hard time without all that much action.

  10. I just read this and while I think I liked it more than you did, I can also see your criticisms, especially with regard to Celia and Marco. I just wasn’t entirely feeling that epic love story. But the rest of the book – the circus in particular – was magical.