July 18, 2012

Review: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
Published: 2011, Doubleday
Genre: Adult Fiction
Source: Personal book

“You’re not destined or chosen, I wish I could tell you that you were if that would make it easier, but it’s not true. You’re in the right place at the right time, and you care enough to do what needs to be done. Sometimes that’s enough.” 

Based on reviews that I've read, most readers seem to be of two opinions over this book. On one side readers have absolutely loved this book. This book has been getting a lot of attention and it actually won the 2012 Locus Award for a First Novel. Those in the second group, however, found themselves frustrated by the novel, especially after reading such an interesting premise. Although I find myself firmly entrenched in the first camp, I can understand how others believe that this novel does not live up to the hype that it received.

The Goodreads synopsis mentions a "fierce competition" between a young male and female magician. It mentions how against the odds they fall in love, and how their competition affects every aspect of the circus. It also includes some spoilers. While nothing in the synopsis is incorrect, it's definitely not the best description out there and doesn't truly capture the book's essence. This is the only line of the synopsis that I truly agree with: "Written in rich, seductive prose, this spell-casting novel is a feast for the senses and the heart."

The Night Circus tells the story of Le Cirque des Rêves, from its initial inception throughout the first thirty or so years of its existence. We learn early on that the circus is the ground where this competition between Celia Bowen, the young daughter of an enchanter, and Marco, the protégée of a mysterious man, must be fought. Neither is aware of the rules, but both of them are bound to this fate. While they both play important roles in the story, however, Morgenstern does not limit the book to simply them. Many other characters with ties to the circus are also given narratives within the story. This is more than a story about a competition between enchanters, but a story about the life of a circus and how it affects the lives of so many people.

Although there are some fantastical elements in this book, I'm much more inclined to think of it as magical realism than as fantasy. Marco and Celia have some magical gifts, but I considered them more to be illusionists, who were capable of manipulating images, time, and more. The circus does have its own sort of magic that affects both the performers and the spectators. I can completely understand the rationale behind the rêveurs, who are basically circus groupies that follow the circus from location to location. There's something magical about the circus, but it's the little things that truly seem magical. And that makes me identify it more with magical realism.

The language is absolutely beautiful. I highlighted so many quotes as I read. Morgenstern's writing really brings the circus to life. Through the story the circus itself becomes a character. It's not unheard of for the setting to become a character in a book, but neither is it very common. I enjoyed the little excerpts from Friedrick Thiessen at the beginning of sections describing his visits to the circus, as well as the smattering of sections here and there that focus solely on the description of the different tents and exhibits. That's one of the reasons that I really enjoyed reading the sections narrated by Bailey. Any part that can further instill a sense of wonder over the circus was a good thing to me. Morgenstern's writing style is definitely description-oriented, which worked perfectly for this book.

The book has a quiet sort of elegance in its narration. Many people may be turned off by how slow the book can seem at times (despite it covering such a wide span of time). There's not a ton of action, and definitely not as much as many will expect after reading the Goodreads synopsis. It is quite different than most popular fiction in the marketplace right now, but different certainly doesn't mean bad. The subtlety and deliberation caused me to work a little more as a reader. I found myself trying to remember who certain characters were, or how everyone related to the circus as a whole.

Not all the characters are fleshed-out nearly as well as they could be. I was left with a sense that I didn't understand all of their motivations, beliefs, and histories nearly as well as I would have liked. I am all about characterization in novels, so this lack of characterization was difficult for me at first. But ultimately this is a story about the circus. The characters provide some perspective and give us something human to hold onto in the midst of this story, but I almost feel as though their needs come second. The storyline itself is much more about the big picture than smaller events in the lives of the characters.

This is a book you need to be in the right sort of mood to read: a mood where you're willing to sit back and let the story gradually unfold, appreciating the wonder of it all.
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Amanda loves few things better than sitting down with a cup of tea and a book. She frequently stays up far too late, telling herself she just needs to finish one more page. When she's not wrapped up in the stories of others, Amanda works as a children's librarian in a public library.


  1. I agree! I really enjoyed this one, but I understand entirely why people were disappointed. It was sold as something with a lot of action and a powerful romance, and I didn't really feel it had either. It was a quieter, more subtle, very atmospheric book where, as you stated, the needs of the characters come second. The setting itself was really the star of this one. =)

    1. Definitely! And it is an excellent setting. I really, really need this circus to become real so that I can go and visit it.


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