Review: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

I found Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus to be an absolutely enchanting read. By this I mean that, while I wasn’t exactly in love with every part of the book, it was still able to carry me far, far away from the mundane bus rides and never-ending emails of my own world! I’ll go ahead and say now what I wish someone had told me going in to reading this book, a sentiment that seems to be cropping up more and more among the bloggers I read: try and not believe the hype that surrounds this book like a big glittery cloud. Yes, this book does have fantastic stripey end papers.  Yes, the descriptions of the circus are magical, and the characters that Morgenstern has created are more than loveable. But, as it always does, the hype machine will let you down. If you go in to this book believing it will be THE BEST BOOK YOU’VE EVER READ AND IT WILL TURN THAT FROWN UPSIDE DOWN AND CURE CANCER AND BRING JOHN LENNON BACK FROM THE GRAVE WITH ITS POWER OF IMAGINATION…well, you’ll be let down. But if you let this book work its magic on you without expecting it to be anything but a great story…well, that’s where the real magic of The Night Circus lies. For those of you who have somehow missed the plot summary of this book, here’s the Goodreads for you:

The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des Rêves, and it is only open at night.

But behind the scenes, a fierce competition is underway—a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood expressly for this purpose by their mercurial instructors. Unbeknownst to them, this is a game in which only one can be left standing, and the circus is but the stage for a remarkable battle of imagination and will. Despite themselves, however, Celia and Marco tumble headfirst into love—a deep, magical love that makes the lights flicker and the room grow warm whenever they so much as brush hands.

True love or not, the game must play out, and the fates of everyone involved, from the cast of extraordinary circus per­formers to the patrons, hang in the balance, suspended as precariously as the daring acrobats overhead.

But here’s the thing you might find surprising about this book: I really couldn’t give two figs for the romance part of this story. I mean, yes, it’s important because it ultimately ends up driving the entire ending of the book (I’ll give major props to Morgenstern for finding a way to keep the circus going, as for a while there I was as afraid as everyone else that this beautiful creation would have to die!) but, for the most part, these were the parts I was actually the least happy with. When the circus begins, Marco knows that Celia is his competitor, but Celia doesn’t possess this same information. Because of this, we actually get about half way through the book before the two really even get to be in one anothers solitary company, and it’s not until after that that the romance even begins to flourish. The reader is, of course, given that whole line about how it was love at first sight, Marco has known all along, blah blah blah. But honestly? None of that ever works for me if there isn’t the development within the relationship, and this time that part just wasn’t there. I found myself wanting to leave Marco and Celia and get back to the circus, and to Widget and Poppet and Bailey.

Now that I’ve expressed the things that irked me about the book (and I feel like my treatment of this may not have gotten across quite fully enough – I REALLY didn’t care for the relationship part. AT ALL. If it had been removed completely, I wouldn’t have cared at all) I can get to the thing that drove this book for me, and kept me reading to the last page: the circus. The circus, much like it is for all the characters, is the thing that keeps this book together. And it’s pure fracking magic. Let me tell you, Erin Morgenstern just got added to the list of people who’s imagination I would love to play around in for a day (other authors include: Salman Rushdie, Neil Gaiman, and J.K. Rowling). In case the book jacket isn’t enough, here’s a taste. Describing the clock that sits at the main gate:

The face of the clock becomes a darker grey, and then black, with the twinkling stars where the numbers had been previously. The body of the clock, which as been methodically turning itself inside out and expanding, is not entirely subtle shades of white and grey. And it is not just pieces, it is figures and objects, perfectly carved flowers and planets and tiny books with actual paper pages that turn. There is a silver dragon that curls around part of the now visible clockwork, a tiny princess in a carved tower who paces in distress, awaiting an absent prince. Teapots that pour into teacups and minuscule curls of steam that rise from them as the seconds tick. Wrapped presents open. Small cats chase small dogs. An entire game of chess is played (69).

Who wouldn’t want a clock like that to exist, let alone to be able to see it in real life. In the book, the followers of the circus are referred to as rêveurs and I think it goes without saying that, were Le Cirque des Rêves real, I would be one of these followers, going to any lengths possible to track it down and spend all my nights in it’s magic. Not only are the tents and features of the circus itself fantastic (I’ll get to those in a minute) but the characters that possess the circus – truly possess it – are unforgettable.

There is a character here for practically everyone. The ambitious and creative Chandresh Christophe Lefèvre. His close family friend, a genius with theatrics and costumes, Madame Padva. The kind clockmaker Friedrick Thiessen and the mysterious contortionist Tsukiko. Much like the circus, none of Morgenstern’s characters are exactly what they appear to be, and her subtle writing when discussing how each of them is mentally and physically affected by the circus are some of the best bits of writing throughout. However, I think I have to say that hands down the best characters in the book are Bailey, the non-magic boy who, in the end, basically gets adopted by the circus and ends up it’s manager, Poppet, and Widget, the two red-headed twins born as the circus opened it’s doors for the first time.

These three, let me tell you, are the kind of characters you get scenes of, but wish the whole book could revolve around. Not only are the twins red-headed and in love with kittens (their act involves tumbling mini-felines), but they’re fantastic siblings to one another, and are just so endearing. They are attached to the circus as no one else is, as they were born at the exact moment that the circus opened, and to spend time with children who’s whole world has been magic and mystery and imagination…it’s refreshing and endearing and inspiring all at once. When the two meet Bailey, and the fledgling romance between Bailey and Poppet begins to blossom, it’s those two for whom I was cheering, as they were the characters who seemed to love and need the circus more than any of the others.

And, finally, we get to the circus. There would be no reason for me to write about the circus, when Morgenstern did just a great job just writing it to begin with. So, to leave this post, I simply leave you with my personal favorite bits of the circus itself (these labels go in order of the quotes below: the ice room, the rêveurs, Widget’s stories, the enchanted human statues, the tent of bedtime stories, and the pool of tears):

It is exactly what the sign described. But it is so much more than that. There are no stripes visible on the walls, everything is sparking and white. She cannot tell how far it stretches, the size of the tent obscured by cascading willows and twisting vines. The air itself is magical. Crisp and sweet in her lungs as she breathes, sending a shiver down to her toes that is caused by more that the fore-warned drop in temperature. There are no patrons in the tent as she explores, circling alone around trellises covered in pale roses and a softly bubbling, elaborately carved fountain. And everything, save for occasional lengths of white ribbon strung like garlands, is made of ice (119).

The seek each other out, these people of such specific like mind. They tell how they found the circus, how those first few steps were like magic. Like stepping into a fairy tale under a curtain of stars. The pontificate upon the fluffiness of the popcorn, the sweetness of the chocolate. They spend hours discussing the quality of the light, the heat of the bonfire. They sit over drinks smiling like children and they relish being surrounded by kindred spirits, if only for an evening (143).

“Secrets have power,” Widget begins. “And that power diminishes when they are shared, so they are best kept and kept well. Sharing secrets, real secrets, important ones, with even one other person, will change them…This is, in part, why there is less magic in the world today. Magic is secrets and secrets are magic, after all.” (173)

The woman wears a dress something akin to a bridal gown constructed for a ballerina, white and frothy and laced with black ribbons that flutter in the night air. Her legs are encased in striped stockings, her feet in tall black button-up boots. Her dark hair is piled in waves upon her head, adorned with sprays of white feathers. Her companion is a handsome man, somewhat taller than she, in an impeccably tailored black pinstriped suit. His shirt is a crisp white, his tie black and pristinely knotted. A black bowler hat sits upon his head. They stand entwined but not touching, their heads tilted toward each other. Lips frozen in the moment before (or after) the kiss. Though you watch them for some time, they do not move…Each of them always gravitating toward the other. Yet still they do not touch (225).

He recalls what the tag said about opening things, wondering what could possibly be inside all of these jars. Most of the clear-glass ones look empty. As he reaches the opposite side of the table, he picks one at random, a small round ceramic jar, glazed in black with a high shine and a lid topped with a round curl of a handle. He pulls the lid off and looks inside. A small wisp of smoke escapes, but other than that it is empty. As he peers inside he smells the smoke of a roaring fire, and a hint of snow and roasting chestnuts. Curious, he inhales deeply. There is the aroma of mulled wine and sugared candy, peppermint and pipe smoke. The crisp pine scent of a fir tree. The wax of dripping candles. He can almost feel the snow, the excitement, and the anticipation, the sugary taste of a striped candy (238).

The sign outside this tent is accompanied by a small box full of smooth black stones. The text instructs you to take one with you as you enter…Inside, the tent is dark, the ceiling covered with open black umbrellas, the curving handles hanging down like icicles. In the center of the room there is a pool. A pond enclosed within a black stone wall that is surrounded by white gravel…Reflections ripple around the room, making it appear as though the entire tent is underwater. You sit on the wall, turning your black stone over and over in your fingers. The stillness of the tent becomes a quiet melancholy. Memories begin to creep forward from hidden corners of your mind. Passing disappointments. Lost chances and lost causes. Heartbreaks and pain and desolate, horrible loneliness. Sorrows you thought long forgotten mingle with still-fresh wounds. The stone feels heavier in your hand. When you drop it in the pool to join the rest of the stones, you feel lighter. As though you have released something more than a smooth polished piece of rock (283).

If that won’t make you read The Night Circus, I don’t know what will. Happy reading!

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3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: The R.I.P. VI Challenge: A Wrap-Up « Book Maven’s Blog
  2. Kailana
    Nov 09, 2011 @ 00:23:02

    Yes, I agree that this book wasn’t perfect, but I still loved it. Just imagine what else might happen with future books!

    Reply

  3. Trackback: Carried me far away « Night Circus Reviews

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