Review: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

The Night Circus Cover The Night Circus [2011]  – ★★★1/2 

The Harry Potter generation is growing up, becoming a dominant group of consumers, and it seems that those books that contain magic or fairy-tale elements have the biggest chance of success in the market (see also Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell [2004]). The Night Circus can be considered as yet another book which was written on the back of the success of Harry Potter and its atmosphere of magic. The Night Circus was also originally written as part the NaNoWriMo competition, and contains non-linear, multiple viewpoints narrative. In this story, two “magicians” have arranged for their protégés to compete against each other in a mysterious magic competition. Hector has bound his young daughter Celia to compete against Marco, a protégé of a mysterious man named only as Alexander. Little the “magicians” suspect that Celia and Marco may grow up to be attracted to each other romantically, meaning that the competition may end up to be far from the battle it is meant to be. Meanwhile, Chandresh Lefèvre, a theatrical producer, has plans to set up a different kind of a circus, which functions as a completely “immersive entertainment” for the crowds, providing “a unique experience, a feast for the senses” [Morgenstern, 2011: 74]. The strength of The Night Circus lies in Morgenstern’s ability to establish a truly magical atmosphere (of the circus), as well as in the building of an enchanting, fairy tale-like beginning. The main weakness of the book remains in the plotting and in the establishment of the drama. It seems that Morgenstern was so taken by the task of immersing the reader into her magic circus atmosphere that she forgot to pay attention to the need for a dramatic plot or a hero’s journey. The result is that The Night Circus is almost predictable, devoid of any drama excitement or even a story in a strict sense of this word. In the author’s zeal to establish a Romeo & Juliet-setting for Celia and Marco, she also managed to present romantic love which is very unsympathetic (see the spoiler section below). 

The first thing to note is that The Night Circus has a rather unusual narrative structure. For example, it has chapter prologues which draw the reader into the magical atmosphere of one particular mysterious circus, which takes place only at night, and the book also changes its location settings and time periods every other chapter. The author plays with the time concept, and though the story starts in February 1873, New York, it also finds itself in Munich, year 1885, as well as in Massachusetts, year 1902, among many other locations. This provides for a challenging read. At the beginning of the novel we learn that Celia is the daughter of a stage magician Hector, and we sympathise with her because her father is more concerned with the mysterious magical challenge coming up than with Celia’s happiness. Marco is a boy taken from an orphanage by one mysterious man Alexander, who desires him to compete against Celia in the magical tournament. We sympathise with Marco because he is an orphan under the guidance of a cold and business-like man. No one knows what kind of a magical challenge is reserved for Marco and Celia, and then we find out that Chandresh, a theatrical producer, conjures up his plan for a special kind of circus. As we move forward with Celia and Marco’s narrative, there is another narrative of one boy Bailey living in a farm house in Massachusetts and worrying about his future career choices. How Bailey’s narrative connects with the circus narrative is for the reader to discover.

The Night Circus is great in a way it describes the black-and-white themed circus, the history of the circus’s special clock, and midnight dinners hosted by eccentric Chandresh (during these dinners we are introduced to some larger-than-life personalities, including Mme Padva, Mr Barris, Tsukiko and the Burgess sisters). The descriptions are transportive and truly magical. The prologues given with each chapter provide clues as to what is inside the circus, guiding the reader through circus attractions. We learn that the circus was designed with an exquisite taste, and the descriptions burst with vividness and magic. So far so good, only these descriptions overshadow the story itself, and the narrative frankly hits a plateau on page 180. Among all the descriptions, the narrative move forward is almost non-existent. Especially since there is also a second narrative somewhere there involving Bailey. In fact, it can be said that this Bailey narrative serves no other purpose but to provide us with another perspective on the circus. And, of course, one of the biggest weaknesses of the book is that the challenge between Celia and Marco turns out to be quite an underwhelming and almost disappointing experience. Morgenstern cannot really meet the expectations already built in that regard and every page is written in a way to get our attention away from the mysterious challenge.

The Night Circus can also be compared to Harry Potter, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, as well as – yes, that is correctShakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. The comparison with Harry Potter is more obvious. Magic acts are everywhere in the two books, and the circus in The Night Circus can be compared to Hogwarts: both function as mysterious places, with doors remaining unopened and secrets waiting to be discovered. Quite clearly, Bailey takes the role of Harry Potter, who is uncertain of his future and is waiting for a mysterious guardian or circus to point him in the right direction. Both Harry and Bailey are boys who become “special” somehow. In turn, Marco in the novel takes the role of Tom Riddle. Both share similar characteristics, taken from orphanages/institutions and thrust into new worlds full of magic and wonder. Prophecy also plays a role in both books. In turn, Jonathan Strange and The Night Circus share the elements of magic, ravens, Marseilles cards (tarot), and the theme of old Celtic legends. Finally, the theme of Romeo & Juliet may also become clear when reading The Night Circus. There are cruel masters or traditions at the top that separate the lovers in the stories. Like in Romeo & Juliet, Celia and Marco are supposed to be “enemies” and combat against each other, but they fall in love, and the battle between them is not what it is meant to be. Marco cannot get close to Celia because their respective “houses” do not permit it, and their love is not “free”. The Night Circus is what you get when you mix Harry Potter (magic), Water for Elephants, (circus), Jonathan Strange (19th century setting), The Prestige (challenge between two magicians) and Romeo & Juliet (romance).

Most of the time reading The Night Circus is really like “stepping into a fairy tale under a curtain of stars” [Morgenstern, 2011: 178], but it all becomes slightly repetitive towards the end, and the last forty pages seem like they do not belong and should be rewritten. Too much ambiguity arises towards the end, and to justify the uncertain ending, the author writes: “there are no longer simple tales with quests and beasts and happy endings” [Morgenstern, 2011: 477] and “few things in this world are clear-cut” [Morgenstern, 2011: 478].

Morgenstern’s world-building in relation to the magical circus is exquisite and wondrous. Reading these descriptions is like swallowing spoonfuls of delicious hot chocolate with cinnamon and nutmeg, creating feelings of excitement and warmth. However, there is one question begging: if we take away the descriptions of the circus, its acts, clock, magic, midnight dinners or Chandresh’s house, what we are left with by way of a story? Well, not much. The problem is that the expectation built up around the challenge is not met, and the love developed (shared happiness) between Celia and Marco is worrying and questionable. A book of this kind cannot sustain itself if it is built solely around atmosphere, and the hope is that the author’s next creation will be strong both in the setting and in the narrative.

*SPOILER ALERT* 

Another problematic element in this novel is that, although Marco and Celia’s meetings are romantic, their “love” is built completely on the pain, sorrow and trauma suffered by one dejected lover – Isobel, making romantic love between Celia and Marco tarnished and almost unsympathetic (certainly not the result of a clean and fair play). In the beginning, we read about Marco and Isobel’s romantic encounters and instant attraction, and they are seemingly in love. Marco and Celia do not even meet properly until at least half way through the book. When Marco allegedly falls for Celia, he keeps Isobel in the dark for years, making Isobel feel hurt, lonely and isolated – that person who was devoted to him and his ideas for such a long time. Then, we are supposed to praise and admire that “love” developing between Marco, an emotional manipulator, and Celia – the “love” that is built on another person’s unhappiness and pain. This is not like the case of Romeo and Rosaline in Romeo & Juliet where Rosaline is indifferent to Romeo and hardly appearing: Marco and Isobel’s attraction and romance are well established in The Night Circus. Moreover, Marco can be described as an almost negative character. Marco’s actions towards Isobel are inconsiderate and indefensible, and he acts like a coward and a cheater for most of the novel. Marco is also deceitful and manipulative both in relation to Isobel and his boss, using questionable techniques and invasive methods to get what he wants.

10 thoughts on “Review: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

    1. Thanks, I also felt that it was a bit too self-congratulating and tried to please and awe us too much with its “marvellous” descriptions. But, who does not like that, right? So, yes, definitely enjoyable, too.

      Liked by 2 people

  1. I loved this (though it didn’t have the spectacular ending I was hoping for) and had no idea it was a NaNoWriMo project like Water for Elephants.

    It reminded me most of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus and Something Wicked this Way Comes, though I also thought of The Prestige. I’m not Potter-y enough to see much past the competition of magic here. (Yep. I’m behind.)

    Great review, though it does make me want to subtract half a star from my rating. 😂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! In turn, I did not know that Water for Elephants was part of the NaNoWriMo competition. Neither did I read The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnasus and Something Wicked to make comparisons. Your comment makes me think of other stories that may have influenced The Night Circus. I love making these comparisons between books.

      I wanted to absolutely love The Night Circus, and I enjoyed it, but I also thought – what really happened in The Night Circus? – Not much, because the description of the atmosphere is the prime character. There was lack of sufficient drama or any kind of story journey. Sometimes, the book even read like a magic circus advertisement, you probably know what I mean. In fact, when it did not describe something, the narrative was mostly built on other books’ ideas, and that also got me worried.

      Liked by 1 person

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