The Night Circus

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A school book club necessitated me picking up The Night Circus, which I had heard of, but never felt particularly compelled to read. It all sounded a bit twee; an artfully designed black and white striped circus that only appears at night, two talented and gorgeous magicians trained by mysterious and nasty rivals and lots of eccentric and improbable people floating around doing eccentric and improbable things. A glance through also revealed a confusing myriad of different time periods and random sections written in the second person. I wasn’t sure it was going to work for me, but I plunged in anyway.

The basic plot of the novel hinges around a deal made between two powerful magicians, the mysterious Mr A H and Hector. Hector’s daughter Celia and Mr A H’s orphan protégée Marco are bound together as opponents in a challenge with no rules and no time limit. Neither Celia nor Marco know who their opponent is or when the challenge will begin, and they grow up being trained in the arts of magic and illusion with no idea how or when they will be called upon to use their skills. The game begins when The Night Circus is created; it will serve as the board for the players to move their pieces upon, showing off their abilities with more and more elaborate creations, building a legendary, mesmerizing circus that draws people from all over the world every night.

The circus itself is the main attraction of the novel; it is beautifully and atmospherically brought to life on the page, and the central idea of a circus that appears overnight and moves all over the world with no warning is brilliant. I loved the concept of subversion and danger in a game to the death being played behind the scenes of a pleasure ground. However, unfortunately, The Night Circus is a very inconsistent novel. Its moments of brilliance are undone by excessive amounts of extraneous detail that prevent the novel from becoming a coherent whole. Entire plot strands that introduced extra characters, time periods and locations felt unnecessary and bolted-on. The reason behind the competition was never fully explained and as such my interest began to wane towards the end as it became clear that there was not going to be anything in the way of a revelation that would justify the entire premise of the novel. It’s a shame really, because so many elements of the story were fantastic in their creativity. I felt that overall Erin Morgenstern had too many ideas and didn’t know when to stop; a more streamlined plot and character list would have made this a far more compelling and enjoyable novel. Apparently there is a film in the works; perhaps it will work better on screen than it does on the page.

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22 comments

  1. I’ve looked at and rejected this several times, unsure whether it would repay the time invested – and I’m glad to be honest that I didn’t bother! Thank you!

  2. Agreed! I loved the setting, but the plot was so slight I didn’t love the book as a whole, in the end. Not sure how the movie’s going to handle that problem — maybe they’ll just do what Erin Morgenstern did, and focus on being very very beautiful.

  3. I completely agree. I loved the atmosphere of the novel but it does seem to lack focus and direction.

    I also had no idea there was a film on the way! The descriptions of the circus would translate very well from page to screen, I think, and hopefully the screenwriters will find a way to build on the plot and character list, as you suggested. :)

    1. Hello! I’m glad you agree. I was worried I was being mean spirited but it seems I am not alone!

      Oh yes – it’s a gift setting-wise..but the plot will definitely need some work!

  4. This book got a lot of attention some years ago and like you, I never felt like reading it. Maybe I’ll try the film, it all depends on the casting!

      1. Did you see Water for Elephants? I did because I’m a huge Reese Witherspoon fan, and certainly the atmosphere was mesmerizing!

  5. I was interested in what your thoughts would be when you first mentioned reading “The Night Circus”. I think I remarked that I had just picked it up at the library on audio, which, I am sorry to say, did not go well. I just couldn’t get into it and found the characters confusing. There were parts of this, however, that I imagined seeing; the magic tricks, illusions, etc. I did not finish it, returning the CD’s to the library long before they were due. I do, however, think this will adapt well to the big screen. Actually, I wondered how it would fare as a television series. At any rate, Rachel, another good review. Thank you for posting it.

    1. I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy it either, Penny. I think it will be a good film – it felt like it had been written for that purpose, actually. Glad you enjoyed the review!

  6. I bought into the initial hype of this book, and came to regret it. As you say Morgenstern had too many ideas, I also felt that sometimes the description of things hampered the coherant progression of the plot.

  7. I’ve always been curious about this book but somehow never really compelled to pick it up whenever I saw it at the bookstores. Thanks for your thoughts.. I’ve only read reviews gushing over it before so your view gives a fresh perspective.

    1. I can see why people did enjoy this, but for me, it just didn’t quite come together. The setting is fabulous but I’d rather see it on film than slog through a mediocre novel.

  8. I thought it started out well then kind of fizzled out. I think it’s all style and no substance — it’s been a couple of years since I read it, but now I can hardly remember why there was so much fuss about this book.

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