Erin Morgenstern – The Night Circus

It is no secret that The Night Circus was a NaNoWriMo novel that was whipped into shape so it could be published. If you ask me, it wasn’t whipped nearly enough because as pretty as the images painted by Morgenstern’s prose may be, there is very little that makes the novel readable or worthwhile…

night circusTHE NIGHT CIRCUS
by Erin Morgenstern

Published by: Vintage, 2012 (2011)
Paperback:  512 pages
My rating: 4/10

First sentence: The circus arrives without warning.

In this mesmerizing debut, a competition between two magicians becomes a star-crossed love story.
The circus arrives at night, without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within nocturnal black and white striped tents awaits a unique experience, a feast for the senses, where one can get lost in a maze of clouds, meander through a lush garden made of ice, stand awestruck as a tattooed contortionist folds herself into a small glass box, and gaze in wonderment at an illusionist performing impossible feats of magic.
Welcome to Le Cirque des Rêves. Beyond the smoke and mirrors, however, a fierce competition is underway–a contest between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood to compete in “a game,” in which each must use their powers of illusion to best the other. Unbeknownst to them, this game is a duel to the death, and the circus is but the stage for a remarkable battle of imagination and will.

divider1I have asked myself many times, while reading this book, why I was still bothering. What plot was I following, which character did I care about? The answer to both questions is: none. The night circus is as vivid and stunning as its various book covers. But that’s the only thing that makes this book even remotely readable.

Morgenstern chose style over substance in every single chapter. Her descriptions of each of the circus tents, of the wonders created by the “rival magicians” Celia and Marco are imaginative and pretty much make you want to go there. But despite all its black and white glamour, the wonders untold, the stunning feats of its acrobats, the circus is a setting, nothing more. If you don’t fill it with interesting people, why should I keep reading?

I won’t list the many little ideas that the author has put into her magical circus. Be assured that they are beautiful and evocative, and they do exactly what they’re supposed to. I felt a sense of longing, of wanting to go to the circus and try a caramelised apple, see the Murray twins’ performance with their kittens, get lost in the labyrinth. So there is a lot to discover in The Night Circus, but unfortunately it is all description.

Take the characters that exist in this story. Celia and Marco, two magicians pitted against each other, fall in love. That’s the premise and it sounds great with its Romeo and Juliet vibe. Both of them, however, remain such pale cardboard creatures that I couldn’t have cared less if they fall in love or into a river and drown. I am serious. They remain distant and unknowable, and maybe that’s on purpose, but to keep the protagonists of your story this far away from your readers is a mistake, in my opinion. Aren’t I supposed to feel with them? To be desperately in love and want to be together, not fight a magic war that started generations before they were born? The way it is, we see little enough of them and when we do, all we get is a short glimpse that doesn’t tell us much about their personality. They are only what they need to be for Erin Morgenstern’s dream circus to exist. They make the circus, keep it going, adding more and more extravagant tents. Oh yes, and then they fall in love (or so we’re told) and that’s that.

The only character I connected with in any sort of way was Bailey, a young boy who falls in love with the circus as a kid and waits for it to come back for years and years. He has a back story, he has a family. It isn’t a vast backstory and, apart from his passion for Le Cirque des Rêves, there isn’t all that much to him, but at least we get SOMETHING. Tsukiko, the contortionist, is supposed to be important at the end, but apparently wasn’t worth the time putting a few words down on paper before that. She has no personality whatsoever and don’t tell me that the few paragraphs we get at the end make up for anything. I am especially angry because she could have been awesome. Poppet and Widget feel a little more real in that they do childish things when they are children. But I’m referring to one single, lonely chapter among many that are filled with descriptions over descriptions of – you guessed it – the circus and its many marvels.

nigth circus detail

Another unnecessary and utterly confusing device was the jumping in time. No matter how much I think about it, I can’t see a good reason for jumping back and forth – sometimes a year, sometimes a few days – between chapters. Keeping dates in your head is annoying enough when you have to for school but remembering a date from five chapters ago where this or that happened and connecting it with what you’re reading now, but which is happening five months prior, is just confusing. Look, I am not stupid, and I enjoy a challenge – non-linear novels can be brilliant, if done well. But giving away which characters die only to then jump back in time and describe things that have nothing to do with their death whatsoever, just makes no sense. “Oh, by the way, that person dies – now let’s go back a few years to a shiny tent where you climb around clouds. That character who dies, you ask? They don’t feature in this chapter. Or the next. Or the one after that.” The time jumps were useless at best, and off-putting at worst. This convoluted type of non-linear storytelling failed at whatever it was trying to do. It didn’t create suspense, it didn’t foreshadow – it just annoyed. The alternating characters were a more logical device and made more sense, as we see the circus through different eyes.

At about 80% through the novel, finally something of interest happens. The circus itself is in danger! Conflict! Problems! That’s what stories are all about, doesn’t everybody know that? These problems were resolved pretty quickly and sloppily but at least the characters had to do something. It made absolutely no sense, the ending is a loose affair but I had to mention this single occasion of actual plot just because it came so out of the blue and was in such stark contrast to the rest of this novel. At this point, I had long stopped trying to make any of the puzzle pieces fit together. Clearly, the author didn’t care, so why should I hurt my brain by trying to infuse sense into a “novel” that didn’t make any?

Erin Morgenstern has great ideas, even if you don’t count her visual design of the circus. Celia’s relationship with her father could have been intriguing. But, again, it was left on the sidelines and had no impact on anything, really. The two rivals who started the game – namely, Celia’s father and his opponent, merely exist in that particular role. They are gentlemen rivals and they each picked a champion to compete. We don’t know why, we don’t know what happens when either one wins, it’s like a Hollywood reason for having shiny things. Never mind reason or background, if we want sparkly magic and rooms made of ice, we will damn well have them. Oh and then let’s throw some pretty people in, they don’t have to talk. Just look hot and kiss occasionally.

There is so little plot or substance to this novel that I am astounded at how well it did when it came out. Granted, it would make an excellent Tim Burton movie but even then the script writers would have to come up with a plot (ANY plot). If they ever do make a movie of this, I’ll definitely go and see it, simply because the circus must be an impressive thing to look at. But I can promise you that, in a week, I will have forgotten every single character’s name as well as their roles. They are so unimportant to this ode-to-a-place that, at best, I’ll remember their clothes. As to who they are as people… I have no idea, and I suspect neither does the author.

RATING: 4/10  –  Not so good.


9 thoughts on “Erin Morgenstern – The Night Circus

  1. hlmorris85 says:

    I definitely agree with you on this. Such a disappointing book. I feel that way about a lot of circus books, and I think you nailed why: writers of circus books always seem to rest on setting and ignore everything else.


    • Nadine says:

      The style of writing isn’t bad. To me, it was just very badly (or not at all) thought through. I’m sure with some effort Erin Morgenstern could write a great book some day. This just wasn’t it.

      I understand that you don’t want to read it if you actually know the author personally. But I’m also sure that most authors know how to take criticism – and with a book as beloved as this, what’s one negative opinion, really?


  2. jazzfeathers says:

    I feel like there are so many book with such good ideas in them, ideas that never get developed enough to really shine. It’s really a shame.

    Hey, BTW, I’m doing NaNoWriMo too 🙂


    • Nadine says:

      Good luck for NaNoWriMo!
      I tried one time and failed gloriously, so I decided if I ever do sit down to write a novel, I’ll do it randomly without waiting for November. Maybe next year, if work doesn’t take up so much of my time, I’ll give NaNo another shot. 🙂


  3. Carl V. Anderson says:

    Gotta say I’m completely on the other side of the fence with this one. It was one of my favorite reading experiences of the last decade and I’ve went back and listened to parts of it on audio (because Jim Dale does a great job reading it) on a couple of different occasions. I thought it was beautifully written and enjoyed the characters throughout. I didn’t always like them, because some of them were hard to like (on purpose) and others made choices I that didn’t thrill me, but I was riveted to the page from start to finish.


    • Nadine says:

      I wish I was on your side of the fence. Seriously… I desperately wanted to like this book. It had everything going for it, the blurb promised to push all my buttons. But I guess, some books just have that polarizing effect. You either hate it or love it, no matter how much you’d like to feel a certain way about it.
      My suspicions came true, by the way. I remember Celia and Marko by name. The rest of the characters are a blurry mass of black and white, with the occasional red scarf. But that’s okay. I’ve had a very good year, book-wise, and one or two mediocre experiences are totally acceptable.


      • Carl V. Anderson says:

        We cannot all like the same things, and if everyone did I suspect we would have a whole lot of books that read exactly the same way and where would the fun in that be? I’m always sorry when I don’t love a book that many others do, mostly because of the fun there is in passionately discussing all the details of stories (in whatever format) that we like. But it happens, so no worries. I enjoy reading reviews of books that come from a different experience than my own anyway.


  4. KatieB says:

    I really identify with this review – the description of the circus was enough to keep me reading but I had no interest at all in the characters or plot. I found that group who all wear red scarves and follow the circus around particularly grating because I think I was supposed to care about them. I didn’t. I would love it if Tim Burton sorted this out on screen!


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