Review: The Night Circus

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Reviews for The Night Circus ranged from the breathless to the middling  to the damning, but popular opinion leans towards the breathless. “Beautiful!” “Magical!” “Like watching a movie!”

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.

Wedding

Gratuitous Wedding Photo. It’s almost our anniversary, so I’m allowed!

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!

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9 comments

  1. Rick MacDonnell

    I love that you tagged this with “book snob.” Haha. That’s fantastic.

    This one has been on my list for a while now; glad that you dove on this grenade for me 😀

    I’d still like to give it a go, I think. At some point. Doesn’t sound like you’re suggesting that no one read this. (Although I have a suspicion that you’d suggest that I not read this … you know how I am)

    Love your New York Times quote though: “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”

    This is half the reason why YA drives me crazy at times.

    • lauratfrey

      I was thinking it before your comment, but now I’m really thinking I need to have a rating system… I’ve been avoiding it because I will overthink it -I’m in market research so I have complicated feelings about rating scales! – and because I feel it’s sort of sacrilegious to rate classics, like, how the hell am I going to give a classic book 3 stars? Or even 4 stars?

      Even rating this book would be hard. It wasn’t terrible. It was well written, original, and well constructed in terms of the separate narratives coming together. But the plot and characters were a little weak, and it just wasn’t to my taste at all. So do I give that two stars? Three stars? I’m thinking 2.5… and I would recommend it to some people but not everyone. I am recommending it to you because I want to read a scathing review 🙂

      That wasn’t a quote, just the gist of the article. But yeah, show me, don’t tell me.

  2. Angry Vegan

    So I read this book over two plane trips. When I finished it, I thought it was a good little read. Fast-paced and kept me interested the whole way through… you make some pretty good points though. I didn’t really get the amazing imagery the way others did. Your point about the contortionist, I immediately got an image because I have seen contortionists before… but they really could have done so much more with it. Same with the twins. The author kind of leaves that part hanging.

    I kind of found the book read a bit like a soap opera. Many different little stories happening at the same time, but nothing really important ever just happens. I think that is why I immediately took to it and also why I see more an more shortfalls when I think back to it.

  3. Jennifer

    Spot on review, IMHO. This one fell very flat for me as well – agree, there was a lot of beautiful imagery, but the story just didn’t grab me in any real way either. (Yes! what was the competition really about? She left it so vague for so long I quit caring). Though I do also understand why many people loved it – it could make a gorgeous movie, given the right direction.

  4. christinasr

    Interesting, Laura. I probably have something more sinister and dark and twisty in mind too. There’s a Torchwood episode where the Nightwalkers steal people’s breaths and leave them empty shells – something like that is what I have in mind. Still excited to read it and see what I think, though.

  5. Jonette Teresa Benavides

    I loved this book! This book did for me what Twilight has done for everyone else. I love it that she didn’t describe too much, she didn’t draw it out for me. The contortionist’s description, I saw it happening, and with every new description, it added a little to the vision in my head. I give this book 5 stars because I couldn’t find anything wrong with it. Can’t wait to see it on film!

  6. Pingback: You Want it Darker? | Reading in Bed

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