Guest review by Adina Ciment
I have to be honest here. I picked up Erin Morgenstern’s debut novel, The Night Circus (Doubleday, 2011) for two reasons: first, because I shamelessly bought into the hype surrounding it, and second, because I really liked the cover. Add the two main topics of the novel – circuses and magic – and I was pretty much sold. Call me a sucker for promotional gimmicks, but whatever it was, it worked.
The Night Circus tells the story of two master magicians, the extraordinary competition between their two protégés, and the wondrous circus that serves as the backdrop for their games. While Marco and Celia, the star-crossed pair who find themselves caught up in the manipulations of their respective teachers, are the main show in this circus of dreams, Morgenstern paints a collage of other characters whose stories and personalities unfold within the circus walls. In fact, there are so many principal players here that at times you might feel like you’re lost in the freak-show tents. From astonishing contortionists and exclusive midnight parties, to dark magic and fantastical engineers, the circus comes alive on the pages of the book. Cool cover notwithstanding, this is a book that lives up to the hype.
Though the rivalry between the magicians drives the plot, the circus itself is the centerpiece here. The Night Circus opens at nightfall and “arrives without warning” with its black and white striped tents. This Cirque des Reves is certainly the greatest show on Earth, and Morgenstern gives you a front row seat. Each section of the novel begins with a personal tour of the circus written in second person. You walk between the sideshows and watch the tents grow and expand as the circus becomes more elaborate and magical. In essence, you become a reveur - the term used to describe the people who follow the Night Circus like Phish fans.
As fantastic and magical as the circus is, it quickly becomes clear that it takes more than pixie-dust to run the show. This is a dark story, with brooding characters and menacing magic. Circuses are freaky enough by themselves without the added bonus of workers who don’t age, shadowless producers, and unusually prophetic twins who seem like they stepped out of The Shining. Though any circus that sets up at night and never has a midday matinee should be a warning sign, most visitors and virtually all the workers ignore the very real magic in front of them. When they start to realize that something is amiss, they are pretty much too far involved to extricate themselves from the power of the Night Circus and the competition between Marcos and Celia.
Morgenstern’s pacing is slow, but her descriptions of the circus and its various attractions are definitely fun to read, though there were some I had trouble visualizing. The narrative jumps between times and locations that tend to get confusing, particularly at the end as the chapters become more concise. At a certain point I needed to backtrack and figure out where I was in the story. The competition itself is so shrouded in mystery that for the majority of the book, you’re reading blind, so to speak, without any real way of knowing where it’s heading. Some readers might enjoy that, but others might find it distracting. In addition, the love scenes between Marcos and Celia are a bit over the top. I found myself rolling my eyes as lights burst and chandeliers shook each time they touched.
There are many books about circuses, and Morgenstern’s is right up there with the best, though clearly more aligned with Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes than Gruen’s Water for Elephants. The Night Circus is one of those rare novels that you will want to revisit and explore long after the tents have folded. Grab your red scarf and get comfortable. You’re in for a treat.
Adina Ciment is an English teacher by day, mother of five by night, soon-to-be famous author in between. She writes for Tailslate and has contributed to The Best Damn Creative Writing Blog. You can also find her on twitter. It is always a delight to have her as a guest here on Books, Personally - she is the author of this outstanding ode to the marvelous Molly Weasley and this brilliant holiday gift recommendation.