So, if you’re a regular-ish reader, you know that I love all things Victorian, freaky, and fantastical. And if you’re not a regular-ish reader, you know now, and can imagine the greedy glee I felt when I read the description for The Night Circus about a month ago, and discovered that it would feature a magical circus and a pair of star-crossed Victorian lovers. With this material, how could it go wrong? Well, I wouldn’t say it went wrong, exactly. Yet here is a book that is slightly less than the sum of its parts.
Le Cirque des Rêves is a magical, traveling circus, featuring tents in which you can hold a stone in your hand that will drain you of old hurts and leave you feeling lighter once you toss it away; a wishing tree that you can only find when you have real need of it (Tree of Requirement?); a cloud-maze in which the only way out is up; and the best damn apple cider you’ve ever tasted. The protagonist, Celia Bowen, pretends to be an illusionist in her act, but the truth is that all her transfigurations are real. Celia has been locked into a magical competition since she was six years old, in which she is forced by her father to compete against an unknown opponent, for an unknown purpose, for an unspecified amount of time, after which a winner will be chosen– by whom, we don’t know.
We have a little more information than Celia. We know that her opponent is Marco, the assistant to the circus’ founder. Of course, Marco and Celia fall in love, complicating the contest enormously. I felt for them, but only to a certain extent, because, as a friend who’s also read the book points out, Celia and Marco are the least interesting people in the book. The book might have been more interesting had it been told from the perspectives of Hector Bowen (aka Prospero the Enchanter, former illusionist), Celia’s coldly manipulative father, and Mr. A.H., Marco’s magic teacher and adoptive father of sorts. These men are the real competitors in the contest, and have potential to be fleshed out into complicated personalities based on the conflict between their relationships with their respective pupils and their willingness to use them as pawns. The trouble with Celia and Marco is not that they are used as pawns, but that they don’t ever become much more than that. They are beautiful and trapped and simple.
Meanwhile, more complex characters, with more relatable problems, are relegated to short chapters interspersed with the main plot. There’s a young boy, Bailey, whose life on a farm isn’t enough to satisfy his longing for adventure; there are Poppet and Widget, who in a shout-out to Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, are a pair of magically gifted twins born just before and just after midnight, respectively; and there’s Isobel, the fortune-teller, who, while opining that people never believe what she reads in the cards for them, doesn’t want to believe what she reads for herself, either.
Sensually, the book is lovely, as the sights and smells of the circus are vividly described. The reviews I saw online when I was deciding whether to buy the book compared it to Harry Potter, but really, here is what the book is more like:
One light, one dark, dude. It’s like “Lost,” substituting the circus for the island and Hector and A.H. for Jacob and the Man in Black. A.H. is even referred to frequently as “the man in the grey suit.” I could make further comparison, but it would get too spoilerish.
On a technical level, I was disappointed in the book’s nonstop use of the present tense. I basically agree with Philip Pullman, who notes that the power of present tense prose lies in its contrast to the usual past tense, and that writing an entire novel in present strips it of meaning. Morgenstern intends for the reader to feel as if she is in the circus, as evidenced by the periodic chapters written in second person. You are opening the flap and going into the tent! But every chapter is written as if it is happening right now, which to my mind only draws attention to the fact that there are very few ups and downs in the book. Feeling myself forced to keep a sense of urgency and immediacy throughout the book, I exhausted my reserves of that feeling and actually became somewhat bored.
In my reading, I couldn’t tell why Morgenstern had chosen to set her novel in the late 1800s/early 1900s. A magical circus has its own reasons for quaint costuming and presentation, so it doesn’t matter what time period it’s set in. It could have been that there were certain social constraints that were supposed to affect the characters, but there aren’t any. The language is simple and always in present-tense, so there’s never any feeling that this all happened a long time ago… no, I can’t figure this out. I may have missed something. I’ll think about it some more.
This review sounds more negative than I intended it to. As I said before, the visuals and other sensory details are beautiful, and though the more interesting characters are only supporting ones, they are at least there, which elevates the novel to something more than a love story. Somehow, the book feels earnest, as if it means something beautiful and magical to the person who wrote it, and though I could not feel the same way about this book, I respect that it’s not a hollow parade of images designed purely to enchant the reader. It’s a vague compliment, I know, but The Night Circus has heart.