Friday, December 23, 2011

253 (2011 #58). The Night Circus

by Erin Morgenstern

This debut novel is part fantasy, part romance.  Two narratives occurring over different time periods eventually intersect at the end.  The setting is the mysterious Night Circus (Le Cirque des Reves, the Circus of Dreams), with black-and-white striped tents that appear suddenly and are gone the same way, and is only open at nighttime.  Everything inside the circus is done in black and white and silver and shades of gray, with a few spots of red provided by the reveurs, the circus fans who follow it from town to town and wear that color as a badge.

In one storyline, which begins in 1873, Celia Bowen and Marco Alisdair are trained from youth as illusionists/magicians by their mentors, respectively, Celia's father Hector (aka Prospero the Enchanter), and the mysterious "man in the grey suit" known only as Alexander H., who plucks Marco out of an orphanage.  Hector and Alexander are in an unspecified contest, and unknown to each other at first, Celia and Marco are the competitors.  The circus is designed to be their venue, with Celia working from within as a performing illusionist, and Marco from without as the assistant to the circus' owner, the eccentric Chandresh Christophe Lefevre.  Other unusual characters are involved with the circus' development, and they all benefit (and suffer) from the circus' seeming ability to prolong their lives.

Celia and Marco eventually learn they are opponents and fall in love.  This was not surprising to me; I can see how one would be attracted to the competitor in such an intellectual contest..  Many of the fantastic attractions of the circus - the Ice Garden, the Wishing Tree, the Labyrinth - are things they make for each other, or in collaboration.  Ultimately, though, this game of their mentors in which they are pawns turns sinister.

The second story begins in 1897 and involves two children born the day the circus first opens, the red-headed Murray twins (children of the lion tamer), Penelope and Winston, nicknamed Poppet and Widget, and a young circus fan named Bailey Alden Clarke.  The two stories come together in 1902, when Poppet, Widget, and Bailey are all sixteen.

Drawbacks of this book include a weak, thin plot; mysterious but flat, underdeveloped characters, and problems with the writing.  Most of the book is written in awkward third person present tense, with frequent inserts in second person present tense describing the circus.  There are also some anachronisms, the most glaring one being the nickname "Widget" - the first known use of that word was not until 1926.

The competition is never really explained and doesn't appear to have any rules or limits, other than the fact that it's a duel, and one competitor will not survive.  I found Celia interesting and likable, as well as the twins and widgets, but Marco was a boor, and most of the other characters were enigmas.

The strength of the book was the setting - the night circus - and the gorgeous, imaginative, vibrant imagery Morgenstern used to describe it.  There was something ephemeral about these descriptions that kept me going with this book even when the plot and characters couldn't carry it.

The book also has a gorgeous cover and design.  The black background on the cover is shiny, the tents and hand are embossed, and the scroll work around the tents is holographic.The end papers are striped like the circus tents.

The book has received a lot of hype, and I'm not quite sure why.  The author is young and describes herself as an artist.  I think the publishers were seduced by the thought of someone of the Harry Potter generation writing a fantasy involving magic, and the book was published with very little editing.  I enjoyed the book, but it's not one that I would re-read.  But then, I also didn't re-read any of the Potter books and only saw the first movie, so perhaps I'm not the right audience for this book.

While I only give it three stars (and that only because I loved the descriptions of the circus), other readers would give it five of five, and still others (those who strongly need their books to be plot- and/or character-driven) would not even give it one star.  For all those reasons, I'd recommend borrowing this book from the library (as I did) rather than buying it.  If you like it enough to re-read it, then buy a copy.

text © Amanda Pape - 2011

[This book was borrowed from and returned to my local public library.  Photos are from the author's website.]


  1. This book is wonderful! Strange, but great!For her first novel it was really good. I can't wait to see the movie!

  2. Danmark, I would love to see what a cinematographer would do with this book! Thank you for commenting!