Filed under: Book Reviews, Commercial Fiction, Fantasy, YA Lit | Tags: book reviews, books, erin morgenstern, literature, reading, 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.