For me, this doesn’t bode well. I tend to look down on books that are “too” popular (book snob, remember?) and when I DO believe the hype, I’m often let down. I tried to go into The Night Circus without expectation, but I did buy into the idea that this would be a heavy-on-imagery, light-on-plot kind of book; and that was just fine, after reading a book that was very heavy (literally.) I looked forward to losing myself in a Victorian romance.
Things started off alright. I love the black/white/hints of red cover. Those were my wedding colours. My husband was afraid it would look like a vampire wedding (?) but I think it turned out clean, understated, and elegant.
The premise, while initially intriguing, never develops enough tension to hold my interest. A lot of people criticize the book for not spelling out the nature of the competition between magicians Prospero and “The man in the grey suit.” I can understand the author’s reason for holding back – this is a story of mystery and wonder, after all – but so many details were left out that I was left not knowing who to root for. Celia or Marco? Marco and Isobel, or Marco and Celia? Prospero or the man in grey? Do we want Poppet and Widget to escape the circus? Or are we okay with them aging in a world that stays exactly the same (because that sounds kind of horrible?)
The grand romance between Celia and Marco never made much sense to me. There wasn’t much of an arc to it – they fell in love and… that’s it. They built each other pretty things, but, so what? I think Marco was an ass for stringing Isobel along, and I don’t understand why Celia didn’t rebel against her father much sooner.
I did find an interesting tidbit about Celia’s name. Morgenstern must be a fan of Shakespeare. In an early scene, Prospero says that Celia should have been named Miranda. This is a reference to The Tempest, from which Prospero has taken his stage name. In the play, Prospero’s daughter is named Miranda, and she is an obedient and loyal daughter. Presumably Prospero would have known that Celia is the name of a character in As You Like It, a play that famously contains the line “All the world’s a stage,” which is pretty heavy foreshadowing of Celia’s fate.
Surprisingly, the writing style left me cold, too. I agree with the New York Times, that you can’t just tell me something is beautiful, you have to tell me what it looks like and let me come to that conclusion. For example, here’s a description of contortionist Tsukiko: “Tsukiko is a consummate performer. She adds the perfect flourishes, holds positions and pauses for the ideal amounts of time. Although she twists her body into unimaginable and painful-looking positions, her beatific smile remains in place.” Okay, but, this doesn’t really give me an idea of WHAT she’s doing, only HOW she’s doing it.
Another common criticism that I agree with is that there is no anchoring the story to any time period. I realize it is probably intentional, but, I don’t think I should have been picturing Bailey and his family living in the 1980s, which I did, even when I reminded myself of the date. I did like how the timelines for the story threads came together at the end. That made me thing of stripes converging at the top of a circus tent.
So, the love story, the competition, and the writing style fell flat. BUT this book is all about the imagery, right? Right. Unfortunately, the overall aesethic wasn’t to my taste, either. I wanted dark, gothic, and seedy, but what I got was fluff and spun sugar and kittens. Where was the absinthe, the opium? The hardest stuff on tap was apple cider, for goodness sake!
In fact, I just realized what kind of imagery I wanted to see. Check out the video for Alice in Chains’ “No Excuses.” Now that’s a circus I want to watch. Note the requisite “90s rock video old man in undershirt,” but note also that we’ve got tents appearing at night, a man in a suit, a woman in a white dress, Victorian details like parasols, a contortionist… it’s perfect!