Fat Books & Thin Women

Review: Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus

With a book as hyped as Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, it’s impossible not to wonder how your reaction is tied up with the massive advertising campaign devoted to the novel. Reading about the novel as some sort of one-shot Harry Potter, of a movie deal before publication, of circus events set up to advertise the book, makes the book hard to see for itself. On one hand, you’re only reading the book because of the hype machine; on the other, the book can never live up to all the pre-publication praise; from another angle, you want to love the book so you can join the crowds that are heaping praise on it; from another, your inability to love the book the way you’ve been told you should makes you resent the reading experience more than you otherwise would.

In some regards, The Night Circus is a gorgeous book. Revolving around two illusionists, Celia and Marco, the book follows them and the competition they’ve been bonded to. The night circus, which moves from location to location with little notice and is closed during daylight hours, is the canvas for their competition, which over the years morphs into a collaboration of sorts between the illusionists. They don’t compete against each other Harry Potter-style, dueling with their Ollivander wands, but rather work as if they’re playing a chess game; one creates a new tent or attraction for the circus, and the other responds in kind.

Morgenstern takes chapters from four views: Celia’s, Marco’s, Bailey’s (a boy who visits and falls in love with the circus, eventually being pulled into the competition), and the second person. What she seems to be aiming for, with those last two views – the “you” and Bailey – is a sort of wonder with the circus; by telling us what the circus is, what it means for its guests, she attempts to imbue the novel with the same magic Bailey feels when he visits the circus.

The problem with this is that while some parts of the world are drawn gorgeously, fully, others are left so bare as to drag the story down. The competition that Celia and Marco are a part of is so vaguely defined that it reads as if the author herself doesn’t know what the aim or rules of the contest are. As if to keep the world of the night circus in the world of the fantastic, she never moors the world to any recognizable set of rules. This might seem appealing when you’re thinking of a fantasy novel – nothing to hold it back! – but reading The Night Circus serves to remind that one of the things that makes Harry Potter such a loved series are all the rules (to the magic lessons, to quidditch, to how Harry can interact with Voldemort), that the world of Lord of the Rings is defined right down to the grammar structure of each and every language, that what makes it possible to love the fantasy stories of our childhoods is not the lack of rules and boundaries but their clear and defining presence. Perhaps Morgenstern wanted to say something about the limitless nature of fantasy by not placing any limits on the contest between Celia and Marco; but it reads as though she was too lazy, or too consumed with the imagery of her text, to define the contest – if not for Celia or Marco, then for the reader at least. Celia at one point asks her father, “How can I excel at a game when you refuse to tell me the rules?” The reader, likewise, can’t be expected to experience the book as fully as he or she might, without knowing what guides the central conflict.

Morgenstern devotes much of her authorly energy to detailing, rather than illuminating, the world of the night circus. This is a novel that may well make an extraordinary movie; the best parts of the novel are Morgenstern’s descriptions of Marco’s and Celia’s illusions, but even these fall flat as Morgenstern is unable ever to show us why something is extraordinary, but only to tell us that it is. Celia and Marco’s love for one another, which is meant to stand at novel’s center, is hardly believable; we’re told that the power of their feelings for each other touches everything around them, even heating the air at a party, but that love never feels like more than a plot device.* We have ships made out of books, seas of ink, tents filled with cloud mazes, extraordinary clocks, but these images, every last one of them, read better as directions to a film director than as passages in a novel.

The verdict? I can’t believe I’m saying this, but The Night Circus is a book that I see doing better as a movie, with a director who will give credit to Morgenstern’s images while providing more shape to the plot. I’m in the minority in not loving this book, though, so be sure to read the reviews up at Words and Peace, Entomology of a Bookworm, and Confessions of a Booklush if you’re looking for a more positive opinion.

* I feel uncomfortable even using the phrase “plot device” here, as the greatest failing of The Night Circus is that its plot is so damn vague.


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I’ve heard a few people make similar complaints about this book. The setting is beautiful but otherwise the book is lacking. I think you make a great point about rules making fantasy better (like in HP or LotR). If you don’t have them the story feels manipulative because the author can say whatever they want.

Comment by Alley

Right, I wish Morgenstern put as much energy into the plotting and rules of the story as she had into the imagery. I read a lot of praise about those images early on (especially that ship of books on the sea of ink), which got me interested in reading the book; but something about the whole left me cold. It was hard to develop a real sympathy or concern for Marco or Celia, because not only was their love “hidden” from us (or at least, wasn’t shown well) but everything about the conflict they were a part of was an unknown.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

I read only the first chapter of this, as a sample, and was amazingly underwhelmed with the writing, already sensing so much of what you complain of here–telling not showing, detailing not illuminating. I felt like it was all surface dazzle–not necessarily done all that well either.

Comment by nicole

I was trying to think of exactly what about the writing didn’t capture me, because like you said even that surface dazzle wasn’t done real well. In part I think it was the present tense; but I haven’t minded other books being written in that tense, so I think it’s that the whole thing had the air of a draft, of images and scenes that should have wowed but felt like they were being written as an exercise.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

I love your observation on the double-edged sword of the effects of massive media hype and publicity for a novel’s release. That, actually, is the reason I was so hesitant about reading the Harry Potter series, though thankfully, reading those books has had no adverse effects…but it sounds like reading this one might. I admit that the premise is intriguing, but I doubt a book can be held up for hundreds of pages on the strength of an alluring concept that isn’t well explored. I’ll likely be adding this to my ‘to read at some point to satisfy my snobbish pre-conceived notions’ list.

Comment by Shivanee @ Novel Niche

I love that we had a similar experience with the HP books. I started reading not long after the third book came out, but I remember reading articles about the series before then. The hype didn’t get me real interested in the series, and I felt almost like I was giving in when I bought one of the books (and even then, I justified the purchase by making it with a gift card). I wound up loving HP and I think it was because Rowling explored her world so completely. As you say, a novel can’t be held up on an incompletely explored but alluring concept. Rowling had the alluring concept and explored every last detail – gives you that wonderful feeling, when you’re rereading, that there are endless aspects of Harry’s world for you to discover.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

Very thoughtful review, interesting to consider what this one fails to achieve as compared with the Harry Potter books. Have seen a range of reviews on this one… I have to say my curiosity is piqued despite what sound like some fundamental flaws, if only to better consider what works & doesn’t work.

Comment by Jennifer, bookspersonally

I decided to wait until next year or even into 2013 to read this book because of the hype. I’ve read a few books while the hype for it was raging and I sometimes I feel I succumb to that more than anything else. But the story seems interesting and the cover is beautiful!

Comment by Natalie ~ the Coffee and a Book Chick

I’m reading this right now. At first I was really enchanted, but I feel like some of the shifting perspectives disrupt the flow. I gues I’ll see how I feel at the end.

Comment by Laura

I just finished this a few days ago, and though I enjoyed it much more than you, that the competition had no defined rhyme or reason always bothered me. She alluded to the origin of it at some point near the end (I think), but only in the most vague terms. I didn’t mind that the competition itself lacked defined boundaries, but more that it’s purpose was never clear, which made the plot’s basis somewhat shaky.

I actually love the circus bits, and found the descriptions perfect for building the imaginary world in my mind, though I also think the setting was too much in the foreground.

Comment by zeteticat

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Thanks for the Review………..I’m definitely going to check this out….

Comment by Christopher Meades

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I enjoyed reading your review…I differ in my opinion regarding it, however that is what is wonderful about reading, there should be different ideas generated (in my way of thinking)…I found the descriptions lush, and I know of people who read this that it enjoyed it very much, they don’t usually read fiction…and found this to be a great read.
Thank you for your blog…

Comment by C

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