books and reading · reviews

Book Review: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

The Night Circus arrives without any advance warning.  It just appears on the outskirts of a town and draws people to it.  The all black-and-white circus amazes people with its fantastical elements, and it is an experience that stays with its attendees forever.  Little do the common people know that there is an ongoing competition within the circus.  Two young people have been selected to compete against one another in a battle of skill and imagination.  Despite their destiny to be opponents, Celia and Marco fall in love and must contend with the consequences of their choices.

Morgenstern’s novel garnered a fair amount of publicity and critical acclaim when it was published last year.  Topping many of the best of lists for 2011, the book also managed to make a number of lists of adult fiction recommended for young adults.  Rich description, lush writing, and an absolutely creative premise make this book a standout. It’s already been optioned for a film, and its cinematic story will translate beautifully to the screen.

Unfortunately, I didn’t love it as much as I wanted to. A lack of character development for the book’s two leads combined with pacing problems and a surplus of secondary and tertiary characters made this book an uneven read at best.  However, the book’s undeniably beautiful prose and moving conclusion helped make up for some of the issues with the story.

Part of the problem present here is that despite the fact that the two main characters are supposed to be in competition with one another, there’s never any sense of true tension.  At one point, Celia remarks about the fact that the game feels more like a “dual exhibition,” and she’s never proven wrong.  Even though there’s some loss of life, both Marco and Celia never seem to be in any real peril.  They also remain fairly static throughout the course of the novel, and since the book spans much of their lives, this feels oddly inauthentic.

The fact that there are so many characters who populate this novel is also problematic.  The chapters jump around in time and focus on a wide variety of people.  While this is a neat narrative trick, it’s only partially successful, because some of the characters are much more interesting than the others (I could have done with way more of the twins and way less of pretty much everyone else).  It’s hard to keep everyone straight, and at a certain point, you start to wonder why you should have to, anyway.

Some readers won’t mind the issues I found in this book.  It’s got a sort of magical realism to its story that makes it intriguing in a very unique way.  The descriptions will be enough to keep some readers satisfied, and others will revel in the love story between the two magicians (though I kept feeling like something was missing).  Despite my issues with the book, I can see this one’s appeal, absolutely.  I’ll definitely be seeing the movie.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. Doubleday: 2011. Borrowed copy.

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