Purportedly a love story of epic proportions, the circus is arguably the main event in The Night Circus, Erin Morganstern’s whimsical and wildly descriptive debut novel. Le Circque de Rêves (as it is called) is a mysterious traveling circus which never announces its arrival, but instead appears suddenly, opening its doors at nightfall and closing them at dawn. A mystical place, designed completely in black and white and run by magic and illusion, it is entrancing to visitors who know little about the way it is run. They know even less about the gentle, elegant battle for supremacy taking place between Celia and Marco, two talented young magicians who are trained in different schools of magical ideology. The challenge continues over the course of many years, and as the stakes become clear it is increasingly difficult for either magician to take the necessary steps to win. Each is troubled by the sacrifices involved, and, the little fact that they have fallen in love.
The Night Circus did not prove to be an easy read for me. My book club selected it over the summer, long before its September release date. Though half of them had read advanced copies and loved it, and the other half eagerly looked forward to it, it wasn’t a book that I was excited about. The last book I read about a circus was Ray Bradbury’s 1962 novel Something Wicked This Way Comes. Descriptions of final showdowns between good and evil in Bradbury’s novel, which I wanted to enjoy but had issues with, had already put me in the mind of (and put me off) The Night Circus, which was similarly described though it turned out to be different in execution.
The Night Circus develops slowly and initially I thought I was going to enjoy reading it immensely. Celia and Marco are essentially orphans, one of them possessing extraordinary natural magical talent, and the other taken from their only known home to be schooled in the illusive arts. As the circus develops to showcase to their abilities, readers are treated to delicious descriptions of different tents, performers and acts involved. Chapters alternate erratically through the years, and are interspersed with second person perspectives designed to make vivid and life like walk-throughs of the circus possible. Unfortunately, characterization of the young lovers and others involved with the creation and running of the circus pales in comparison. I just didn’t find there was enough meat or motivations in their stories to keep me interested. Their paths were only outlined, but not fully explored. The magicians seem to fall in love mainly because they have had such stunted upbringings, and magic is the only way they connect with the world. They take great comfort in knowing that each understands the others creations. I could see how they would be enamored with each other, but with nothing more than a handful of meetings over the years, their relationship lacked urgency for me.
Morganstern’s book is constructed much like the circus of her imagination. There are beautiful passages to read, clever constructions of changing narrative points of view, alternating time periods, and bursts of color and intensity, but no real depth. Usually I would say that a novel like this was plot driven, but oddly that’s not that case here. The plot just advances really slowly(the time displacement accentuates that, I think), but without enough heat to bring it all together. When I finally got to the bottom of some of the book’s mysteries, the reveal was anticlimactic. That said, I enjoyed the writing quite a lot. Morganstern has a way with words, and there were times that I was absorbed in, and delighted by, her depictions. More fully realized characters would have made this a hit for me, but without them The Night Circus failed to thrive.