Maybe I’m just a sentimental sucker. I’ve heard every criticism of this novel since I’ve read it and despite the logic of the novel’s detractors, I can’t help but love it. From the first line of the novel, nay, since I first cracked open the cover and saw the hypnotizing striped pattern of the endpapers, I was hooked.
What I initially loved about this book was the lack of explanation. I’ve reviewed another circus novel set in an historical setting in which every single detail of circus life was explained as if it were a dictionary, and the result was a complete lack of ambiance. The Night Circus has ambiance in spades. The reader feels as if he is sneakily looking through a window and witnessing events he doesn’t understand, but he can’t help but be entranced. You want to figure out what these strange men are talking about, and why is that horrible thing happening to the little girl? But let me take a step back and explain.
The Night Circus tells the story of two aging magicians and their lifelong obsession with outdoing each other. One day, Prospero the Enchanter meets his hitherto unknown five-year-old daughter and discovers her latent and hereditary magical ability. Elated by the chance of finally triumphing over his rival, Alexander, “Prospero,” whose real name is Hector Bowen, initiates a competition between his daughter and an apprentice of Alexander’s choosing who will engage in an ancient magicians’ contest, essentially a magical fight to the death. Celia and her rival, the orphan Marco are bound to each other as children and against their wills, must win the competition or die.
Then comes Le Cirque des Reves, the brainchild of eccentric artist Chandresh Christophe Lefevre, and full to the brim with enchantments and wonders. The Circus, as described in the first line, “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.”(3) It is precisely these amazements that form the battleground between Celia and Marco and which will ultimately decide the victor of their competition.
Laced within this larger narrative is an ensemble cast of exceptional characters: an enigmatic clockmaker, enchanting sisters, magical twins, a lonely little boy, and the magicians that are behind the scenes, pulling the strings. The entire book is as enchanting and intricate as the endpapers, perhaps a little too much spectacle and not enough substance, but ultimately mesmerizing.
So let’s address some criticism. In the way of characterization, Celia and Marco fall a bit flat. Though Celia displays a strong sense of self and exceptional courage, there is little about her that is interesting apart from her magical abilities and her independence in a Victorian world. Marco is somewhat more interesting, what with his humble beginnings as an orphan and his devotion to his studies and to his master, but his character falls into “cad” stereotypes when he jilts his lover of many years when he and Celia’s eyes meet across a crowded room.
Yes, the stereotypical, supernatural-YA-novel–esque love story is a bit of a disappointment, but the romantic in me looked the other way. Celia and Marco quickly and inexplicably fall in love, but their love is sweet and it drives the plot toward a satisfying build-up and conclusion. This novel could definitely have benefited from a more psychological approach to characterization rather than its heavy reliance on setting and imagery to form its characters. Celia and Marco are magicians. They’re talented, they’re scared of their futures and of their masters, they fall in love immediately. If I knew more about them, this would have been a five-star novel. As it is, their love seems metaphorical. But I can accept that.
The third-person, present tense point of view lends an uncommon atmospheric quality to the novel; it makes you feel like everything is happening right in front of you, albeit in a hypnotizing slow-motion. But the point of view also has the tendency to make the action feel distant and it somewhat disconnects the characters from the reader. However, the novel would not have been so successful on imagery and atmosphere if not for this somewhat unusual writing style. What the novel lacks in characterization it makes up for in setting. The overall descriptions of Le Cirque des Reves are exquisite. As I have said before, the descriptions engage every sense and make the reader ache to be able to attend the circus.
Read this book for the atmosphere, for the sense of magic, for the pleasure of sinking into the world the author has built. Don’t read it for the love story, for the love arc between the two main characters has more to do with contriving a cathartic ending than portraying an uncommon love. They fall in love because the author had written it that way, yes, but if taken at face value, the rest of the book becomes more enjoyable.
At its heart, this novel is an indulgence. It’s why I fell in love with reading as a young child; it just comforts you. The fantasy elements, the swoon-inducing love story, the inexplicable Victorian setting, the magic. It’s why many of us fell in love with stories. It’s transporting. It lets you descend into another world, slightly familiar, but ultimately surreal. It’s what a turn-of-the-century circus would be like on acid.
Morgenstern, E. (2011) The Night Circus. New York, NY: Random House.