Magic at midnight: a review of The Night Circus

‘Though I’m not certain I’d want to be stuck in a tree for the rest of eternity, myself, would you?’

‘I think that would depend on the tree.’

If you’ve ever wondered what goes on behind the closed gates of the circus, when the people have gone home and the acrobats and fortune tellers have retired to their tents, Erin Morgenstern’s breakout novel will shock and delight you with tales of the inner workings of magic and illusion. The Night Circus constructs an elaborate plot, as ornate and fragile as clockwork, from a simple premise: two young illusionists, one game, and only one winner.

Maybe I wasn’t feeling the full grace of its magic, but this book wasn’t the masterpiece I had been led to believe it was. That’s not to say it isn’t good. On the contrary, The Night Circus is a very good work of fiction. Morgenstern tells a beautiful story, and her talent lies as much in its complex construction as it does her enchanting description. She maintains steady control over the pacing of scenes, but the larger, grand movement of the novel proves her weak point. The author’s many chapters and digressions (which are wonderful) come together in a big way, but not until much later on—the last third of the book, easily. For a book that’s 387 pages long, that’s a long time to wait to satisfy a reader’s curiosity.

Of course, the tactic worked, at least in my case. Less patient readers might grow bored of Morgenstern holding everything out at arm’s reach and turn instead to other pursuits. But for those who endure, the rewards are rich indeed. Morgenstern is enviously clever in her writing. She creates a memorable cast of characters who,  despite their collective number, each find a place that’s unique and important within the story.

Best is her description, which is clear and readable yet never dull and always mesmerizing. And, as briefly mentioned, her pacing of individual scenes is masterful—the push and pull of moments shared later on between the two illusionists, Marco and Celia, put all others to shame.

Morgenstern gives the story a lot of meaning. The black and white imagery obviously reflects the complementary yet contrasting relationship between Celia and Marco. The emphasis on clockwork provides a perfect metaphor for the fragile state of the circus. Morgenstein introduces the danger consequence by consequence, until the details have formed a frightening reality of the game itself. It’s impressive how well Morgenstern manages this feat.

As much as I felt the author waited too long to give us enough of the answers and to unite Celia and Marco, I felt it a fitting match for how the story operates. The characters know little of their role in the game, what the game truly is, or how much power secrets and magic can hold when they continue to build, beautiful in their expression for others but perilous and unwieldy the more complicated and structural they become, like something bottled with too much pressure inside.

Timing, and time itself, is a major theme in The Night Circus, and the events of the chapters (pay close attention to the dates) eventually converge for the book’s ending. But the entire novel and all its parts essentially jump around in the timeline, so I can imagine that a second reading would yield much more insight than the first.

But the special scenes that appear between chapters and sections, the ones that switch to a second-person perspective, do something very clever in the final pages of the novel. They basically establish a new way of experiencing the novel and the circus itself that fits nicely with one of the subplots that goes on in the book. The same happens with the occasional pages that are merely comprised of quotes about the circus in retrospect. Who’s saying them matters, especially when you progress to the later chapters of the book.

Would I recommend The Night Circus? Yes, wholeheartedly, but only if you’re willing to be patient. You have to come back to the circus, night after night, before it reveals all its secrets and wonders to you.

‘It is important. … Someone needs to tell those tales. When the battles are fought and won and lost, when the pirates find their treasures and the dragons eat their foes for breakfast with a nice cup of Lapsang souchong, someone needs to tell their bits of overlapping narrative. There’s magic in that. It’s in the listener, and for each and every ear it will be different, and it will affect them in ways they can never predict. From the mundane to the profound. You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone’s soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose. That tale will move them and drive them and who knows what they might do because of it, because of your words. That is your role, your gift. … There are many kinds of magic, after all.’

More about Erin Morgenstern.

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19 thoughts on “Magic at midnight: a review of The Night Circus

  1. I am so in for this one. It sounds so good. Thank you for finding Stephanie!

    I hope your week is going well my dear :)

    • I do love the cover! Absolutely gorgeous, and it’s amazing how beneficial a good cover can be to marketing a book. It’s what sold me on The Night Circus to begin with. Lots of books get positive reviews, so it’s hard to choose between them. A great cover always helps push sales and reads in general. Thanks for your comment!

  2. This is definitely on my list of books to read. Can’t wait to get to it. Sigh. So many books, so little time! :)

  3. [...] Misprinted Pages – Stephanie, you already know how crazy I am about you and your blog. I can never thank you enough for all that you do to keep me thinking, reading and for reminding me of the things that once mattered to me, that have now made a comeback in my life because of you – books, writing, creativity, yes….but especially determination. I had that once, and I feel it slowly coming back now when I see you work. Thank you. You genuinely inspire the hell out of me, girl. [...]

  4. The writing you quoted is stunning; I can be patient reading that kind of writing. It stirs.I happen to enjoy a good, long story and when it’s well-written, it’s such a gift.

    As always, thanks for bringing yet another fascinating book to my attention.

    Karen

  5. I think this book got over-hyped. I thoroughly enjoyed the writing but the timeline made me a little crazy. And I didn’t feel much for the characters, but I loved the circus itself. So, yeah, a good read but not as fantastic as some of the reviews would have you believe, for me anyway.

    • I agree with you, Leslie. It was definitely over-hyped for me, too. I liked both the characters and the circus, but I didn’t even realize that I had to pay attention to the dates at first (whoops!), and I was annoyed at having to wait so long for any major plot breakthrough. But still, good book. Just not flawless.

  6. I stepped over here after reading KM Huber’s review. And I peeked into the Amazon reviews as well… My take? The Night Circus must have something going for it, simply because so many people have ranted and raved about it in extremes. There is a power in every review, either in favor or against… It suggests tha Morganstein wasn’t afraid to push some boundaries. Looks like it could be a lot of fun.

    • Thanks for your comment, Eden, and for giving my blog a chance! The Night Circus is a good book, especially for a first-time author. But not all of it is squeaky clean and polished. The hype over this book got a little out of hand.

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