Author: Erin Morgenstern
Pages: 387 (hardcover)
Selected By: Elle Tea, by Recommendation from Ms. Em
The Divine Ms. Em’s Score: Elle Tea’s Score:
“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 de Reves, 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 both, this is a game which only one can be left standing. Despite the high stakes, Celia and Marco soon tumble headfirst into love, setting off a domino effect of dangerous consequences, and leaving the lives of everyone, from the performers to the patrons, hanging in the balance.” – from the Amazon summary.
Elle Tea’s Review
As you may be aware by now, the Divine Ms. Em suffers from TLDR Syndrome (Too-Long-Didn’t-Read Syndrome); this has zero effect on her ability to read books, but it typically results in some very brief texts and e-mails. However, at the end of July, I received the following message: “Okay, I have to tell someone: the book I just read was fabulous!!! The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern. It is an amazing book and she is really quirky and imaginative and very talented!” That uncharacteristically lengthy message from Ms. Em got my attention. 🙂
It’s a hard book to classify; I described it to BillMo as a “fairy tale-fantasy-romance-steampunk… sort of… thing… maybe.” And it’s a hard book to score – Ms. Em gave it five teacups, while I find myself wavering between four and five; five for the beautiful imagery conjured by Morgenstern, which, like Mary Poppins, was practically perfect in every way… but three cups for (a) the two-dimensional characters and (b) the author’s occasional tendency to lapse into “telling” rather than “showing.”
First, the imagery. When Morgenstern shows us her world (rather than tells us about it), this novel unfolds like a dream, with vivid and often surreal surroundings, beautiful landscapes, and outstanding effects: the black-and-white tents in the midst of sun-baked fields; the living statue who occasionally receives a bouquet of bright red roses; the tarot reader and the thoughtful way she considers each brightly-colored card; a room furnished entirely with books, so much so that spiraling paper ribbons hang from the ceiling; a coat that turns into birds that turn into a coat; a world made of ice; foggy, rain-covered streets dimly lit by flickering gaslight; train stations full of rolling steam clouds; red scarves dotting seas of black, white, and grey; a fantastic clock and a magical bonfire; dark blood that seeps across a floor towards a pair of bright white boots; and my favorite: a brief interruption to a waltz – little more than a stolen moment, really – which ends with a green gown and a stunned silence while the world marches on.
My only real contentions were, as I said, the flatness of the characters and the author’s tendency to lapse into “telling” rather than “showing.” Now I know how difficult the latter trick can be; it’s so much easier just to say, “The circus is magical,” rather than go through the trouble of convincing people that this mythical place (a) exists and (b) actually is magical. But the entire premise of this book is magic – the beauty it can bring out in seemingly every day occurrences, as well as how it can be used for corruption and destruction – and Morgenstern gets it so right when she does show us her world that it’s jarring to find myself being told quite bluntly that the “air is magical” and “[the] Hall of Mirrors… is more than a simple hall.” These things might be the case, but it’s the author’s job to make sure we believe in these places, these “truths” as much as she does. So, I found myself asking, “But what makes the air magical, and why is the Hall of Mirrors extraordinary?” Just as odd was her tendency to first tell you and then show you; if she shows us that the air is magical, then telling us how magical it is before and after the fact is pointless and redundant.
Another reason “showing” is so important in this novel is because, as often as we are told how “magical” everything is and as enchanting as our main characters’ performances within the Circus might be, the sideline performers come across, for the most part, as fairly standard circus-type fare: living statues are nothing new, and the whole point of them is to be, well, as still as statues; aerialists often perform without nets for shock value; animals being forced to jump through hoops is considered standard circus fodder (boo, hiss). When compared with the marvels worked by the true magicians within the Circus’s troupe, these little sideshows simply fall flat; telling readers these normal performances are part of the overall magic of the Circus means nothing – showing us what makes them amazing and necessary to the Circus as a whole is imperative.
This brings me to the characters themselves. As I mentioned, the surroundings are phenomenal – the entire book left me feeling as if I’d just woken from a beautiful, surreal, sometimes unnerving dream. The world is enchanting, the world is magical – but the people are two-dimensional. Most of the characters are shunted off to the side in favor of our “combatants” and the handful of pawns who make up their immediate associates, and a large part of the tale revolves around the combatants’ love affair (as indicated in the summary above); these two young people have never known love, and I believe that their loveless upbringings and sudden collision of passions held so much more promise and possibility than was actually ever conveyed. They repeatedly seem to agonize over one another, but in the end, their magic is all they seem to really be able to understand, and there is more risk and passion in their illusions than in anything they do with one another. The magical effects are given so much focus and are written so beautifully that, in the end, it comes across as a love affair with lots of glitter and fireworks but no real soul; the core issue of the book is the belief those two characters have in their new love and its importance in their lives, but, to be honest, their love story was, to me, the least fascinating thing about the novel.
I’m quite a fan of Catherynne M. Valente, and Morgenstern’s style is vaguely reminiscent of Valente’s – it’s a fledgling by comparison, to be sure, and it lacks the lyrical magic that permeates Valente’s works, but it is slightly similar. I would recommend this novel to lovers of fantasy and Victorian-era fiction, as well as to those who enjoy their entertainment served with an extra slice of odd on the side.
It should also be said that this is Morgenstern’s first published novel, and, as such, it’s really an amazing way to start a literary career. I, for one, am very intrigued to find out what sort of magic she unleashes on the world with her next work! (She does have a series of short tales which can be read for free on her website: Flax-Golden Tales.)
Oh, and above is the trailer for the book. It’s really quite pretty. 🙂
Elle read the Amazon Kindle version of this book.