“The Night Circus” began as a book club nomination, and is yet another example of why I love my book club, as this was likely not a book that I would have picked up to read on my own. Discovering that the author lives in an area with which I am familiar adds a degree of connectedness to the book, and the first 100 pages drew me into this quirky and unusual story so completely that I imagine one could hear the vacuum as I left reality. I remember sitting on the sofa with my wife, who was also beginning a new book, and reading nearly the first quarter of this novel in one sitting.
Which speaks to the aspect of “The Night Circus” that I think is its strongest, and that is the originality of the concept. This is the most original idea for a story that I have read in over a year, and that alone made the book difficult to put down, at least initially. Morgenstern introduces us to a magician and illusionist whose stage name is Prospero the Enchanter. Prospero, while in his dressing room in the theatre, is introduced one night to a daughter he didn’t know he had, and who has been left with him. The interesting thing that the reader learns about Prospero is that his illusions are not tricks of mirrors and distraction, but actual magic. We soon discover that there are many in the world who can manipulate various forms of magic, and that Prospero’s daughter is particularly gifted. So gifted, in fact, that an agreement is made between Prospero and a man we initially believe is his colleague or long-time friend (no spoilers from me here) for a competition, pitting their students against each other in a duel of magical skill that lasts until one of them no longer stands. Prospero’s daughter and her competitor, Marco, are unwittingly and irrevocably bound to this competition, unable to withdraw, having no choice but to complete the contest until only one of them survives.
Which is complicated by the fact that they fall very much in love with each other.
The circus, which appears without warning, is the venue for this competition. The circus only operates at night, opening at dusk and closing at dawn. It leaves as suddenly as it appeared, traveling around the world, and dazzling curious audiences with feats that could only be magical…and which, of course, are exactly that.
The issue with the plot is that it is its own worst enemy at times. It was around 100 pages from the end when it began to feel like a “love conquers all” story, which made me nearly not want to pick the book up again. And, in the end, it was a struggle to finish the book. Part of this is because explorations of magical illusions, tarot cards, and enchanting spells really aren’t my cup of tea. That said, the plot really did slow down in the end, although, to Morgenstern’s credit, it managed to conclude in a way that I found I hadn’t seen coming.
Morgenstern writes with the annoying habit of substituting commas for periods, creating run-on sentences that walk a thin line between being the signature style of a writer and a perpetual grammatical error. I’m not sure I decided on which it is, but it drove me to distraction throughout the novel, forcing me to stop and re-read sentences that sounded like a mash-up in my head. Which is a shame, because Morgenstern has a true descriptive genius in her narrative, invoking scenes in such sensory detail that I can still close my eyes and know what it would be like to walk through this circus. She quite deftly uses a technique of inserting the reader into the circus through short explorations of different tents at the beginning of each section of the book, walking the reader through what you see as you explore the circus, and combines these scenes with some foreshadowing that, on at least one occasion, was quite clever. Her dialogue, also, flows easily and has flashes of brilliance that caused me to stop and take note of the sorts of lines that you really have to digest before you can more forward.
Her characters are very well developed, and the reader has no issue knowing them at the end of the ebook’s 384 pages. Particularly, I found myself mourning their deaths, almost moreso than applauding their successes.
Perhaps a more substantive critique of the novel than stories about love and dark magic not suiting my particular palette, is that a theme never really develops by the end. Unless “love conquers all” is what Morgenstern was going for, she missed. Or she never intended a theme to be present. This, however, seems unlikely, as several potential themes manifest throughout the novel, but are never fleshed out into any complete thoughts. The closest I could get is that love empowers us to choose our own destiny over that which is written for us, but even that is shaky.
The novel would have been more satisfying had I been able to walk away with some sort of meta-message, but here it disappoints. If you’re interested in reading a debut novel that has achieved some popularity in popular circles, then “The Night Circus” might be a book you would enjoy. In fact, if you follow popular new releases, then you likely have it on your list already. If not, though, I’m hesitant to recommend it. I am, however, interested to see how Morgenstern’s career develops from here.