I referenced this novel in a previous post, discussing the hype surrounding a new author. I wish that I had loved it, that I had been completely overwhelmed by the book, because the writing itself was simply gorgeous. For a woman who mostly worked as an artist, Morgenstern has a wonderful way with words. Unfortunately, it takes more than pretty sentences to create a novel.
As I read a book for review, I make notes. I make notes mostly because I will not remember all of my reactions later, and then I am frustrated when I sit down to write about the book. One of my reactions about a third of the way through the book went like this: “I feel as though I am eating candy: pretty packaging, but no substance.” It did get better, and then fell off again.
The basic premise of this book is a bit hard, because honestly, the main character is the circus. Basically, two magicians decide to pit their students against each other. Hector pits his own daughter Celia against an undecided opponent. Alexander goes to find an orphan and comes away with Marco. The children are raised and taught in two very different kinds of ways. Both do their fair share of traveling, and both learn magic. When they are approximately 19 and 17, the competition begins, in the form of a night circus. We jump around, seeing the different ways the circus enchants its visitors, and watch as Marco and Celia try to outdo each other, but really are falling in love with the other throughout the game.
Here is where we have problems. Morgenstern is more concerned with the circus than with her characters. We open with a second person (really?!) narration of yourself wandering through the circus. We are entranced, awed by the different things, and she has a way of making you feel as if you are almost there. You can almost smell the carameled apples, taste the smoke and cool night air. And yet, you are not the main character in this story. I think that Celia and Marco are supposed to be. But we spend so little time with them, that half way through the book, you start to wonder if this book will have any real story to it.
The central love story is forbidden and passionate. Supposedly. I definitely felt as if it were forbidden, and the tents the two magicians built for each other were certainly marvelous acts of love. Perhaps it is because the story jumps from narrator to narrator, within different times, that it makes it so hard to follow just what is happening. I am not saying that all novels need to be chronological, but even with her dates at the beginning of the chapters, I was having a hard time figuring out what events took place first. This affects the love story a great deal, since we are never really sure how much time they actually spend together. When Celia and Marco are together, you can sense that they want the other, but it is hard to believe that the feeling runs so deep since you spend so little time with them.
Ultimately, the climax of the novel and its resolution feel a bit underwhelming to me. That could be the lack of effective buildup. (At least Morgenstern has a climax, unlike a certain YA novel where the narrator is unconscious for it, so we miss out on it entirely. If you know what book I’m talking about, a gold star for you!)
Here is the hard thing about classifying the book. Morgenstern really can manipulate words. They are engrossing and you are pulled in to the magic of the circus, but as soon as you come up for air, you realize that there is no meat to the story. There could be. It has the bones for something even greater, and that is why it could make a fantastic film (although Summit bought the rights, and their history in adaptations is not a great one). I can understand why there was some hype to this book, I just wish that it had not fallen short of its potential.
I do want to share a quote from the book, simply because it is about stories and writing, and I wish only that I could ever write something that would fall into this category:
Someone needs to tell those tales [. . .] 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. (381)
I forgot to touch on something in this post. When the book was beginning to be publicized, a lot of people were hoping for a sort of Harry Potter phenomenon. After all, the book world gets a boost when something like that hits our shelves. I can completely understand why reviewers and publishers thought Night Circus had the legs to do so. Despite its flaws, you become entranced by the circus and you want to be a part of it. Morgenstern does a masterful job of transporting you there (partly through her second-person pieces that still somewhat baffle me). The thing that publishers forgot was that it was not just the world of Harry Potter that we all fell in love with. It was first and foremost Harry himself. And Ron, Hermione, Fred & George, Dumbledore, Dobby, and so many other wonderful characters. We loved Harry’s world because of who was in it as much as what was in it. So yes, Les Cirque des Reves might have enchanted readers, but without a character to be your friend in that world, there is no reason to escape our own.