True to form, I sat on the review for this book because I liked it so much that I couldn’t figure out how to frame what I wanted to say. In addition to that, a serendipitous Groupon gave me some incentive to hold off.
I would like to start by addressing magic.
Magic can be used for good or evil, by humans or inhumans, by men or women. And occasionally it is used by both at the same time—usually to provoke some type of response from us. My alma mater (TCNJ) had professors and classes dedicated to the feminism of magic and how to read witches, and I have a few friends who have done trips to Salem and England chasing these magical apparitions in order to learn something about the mundane. That is, essentially, what books about magic do—they teach us about the mundane by being so fantastic that we accept something we otherwise might find heart-wrenching. Because it is magic, because we can convince ourselves it isn’t real (even though at its core, it totally is) it functions like a balm. I couldn’t phrase why I liked The Night Circus so much for a while because it took some thought to realize that it was a fantasy, a love story, but not a happily ever after (but, kind of a happily ever after). This blending of real and magical harkened me to other favorite books: The Mists of Avalon, Practical Magic, Interview with a Vampire, and the much beloved Harry Potter series.
“The circus arrives without warning.”
That is how the book opens, and wonderfully, how it closes. The timeline of the book is off the way an illustration of a face might be off—surely there is something wrong but you have to look closely and really think about it before you notice. Morgenstern seems to know our expectations and purposely plays close to the line between noticeable and subtle. The circus, and the novel, is an elaborate board for a game between two magical protégés of two powerful magicians. Morgenstern needs to be applauded for something—I devoured the book (five painfully short days) and instantly did a Google Image, IMDB, DeviantArt sweep of the internet for everything about the book. One thing I found a lot of was synchronicity on the protagonists and their circus: everyone has a general view of Celia, Marco, and Le Cirque des Reves that is consistent with the really specific passages of the book. Perhaps half the book is detailed descriptions of the circus and its exhibits, so not tipping your hat to that detail would be a crime (and probably why someone bought the movie rights but it doesn’t seem to be moving forward in production—this would be a visual beast to do properly). Marco and Celia are also given fairly specific passages: when we are meant to see them they are detailed down to the hairs on their heads and the minutest detail of their clothes, and when they are meant to fade into the background they blend almost seamlessly into the circus until you forget what color their hair is. Those things alone are tricky writing feats—it is easy to get bogged down in details or make the characterizations trite and unappealing. What is the line between an adorable interaction like mixing up a magical and nonmagical umbrella versus something more hokey, perhaps putting a hair-growing potion in coffee instead of cream? Morgenstern wanted this to feel like a fairy tale, but she clearly is writing to adults. Despite this being a circus I’m not convinced this is a book I would give to anyone under twenty because they might lose the point of what she’s doing and get disappointed at the end.
What truly impressed me about Morgenstern’s prose is that while Celia and Marco are both the apt students of great teachers, I have no idea who or what these men are by the close of the novel except that they are powerfully magical and old enough that mortality seems like a puppy—a bit cute but ultimately aggrivating. Few authors can give me a character where restrained details don’t make the character feel less substantial, where unanswered questions aren’t bothersome. Neil Gaiman (whom I adore) comes to mind—for example in Coraline we never get the cat or the villain properly explained, they are just sort of there as if such things exist in the world and we might happen across them; he did this with trolls, Holy Grails, vampires, and Gods in M is for Magic and American Gods. I didn’t look into Morgenstern enough to know if she reads Gaiman or these books but they are certainly kissing cousins—adult fantasy that makes magic plausible.
The entire circus is set in black and white only—ironic given that none of the characters could be described that way. The onlookers dedicated to the circus are reveurs and wear black with a red scarf, to identify themselves as distinct from the circus but decidedly trying to blend in so as not to distract from the show. Outside of the circus there is an earthy Victorian color palette of greens and grays with all the delicious details of the turn of the century: horses, carriages, tea houses, aristocrats with sloping mansions and rare pieces of art, custom dresses and suits, and (my favorite) lust-worthy libraries stacked to the ceilings and practically bursting at the seams. I love Victorian done right—and Morgenstern hits on the sumptuous parts while ignoring some of the possible snags. She has a female protagonist; she could easily have gotten bogged down in women’s affairs and harped on their restrictions. However, Celia, and all the women involved in the circus, are remarkable—they seem like plausible Victorian women who managed to stay in fringe groups of society that allowed them a lot of autonomy and creativity (notably they are either circus performers or extremely rich).
I found the female characters more interesting than the male characters in almost all respects—Celia and Marco are both magic-makers who are locked in a duel, the rules to which they aren’t aware but the reader can guess a few pages in, and they are always trying to come up with a bigger and better display for the circus. I found Celia’s tricks, which involve “showy” magic like a stage magician, more compelling than Marco’s, which involve runes and spells laid out from books and studying. Although I have to admit, I would more like to be a Marco, maybe that is why I was so drawn to Celia. There is also Poppet, one of the mysterious twins, who is the only central female left in power by the close of the book. We go from having a fortune teller, two twin-like sisters with keen eyes, a magician, a wealthy clothing designer, and Poppet to just Poppet—a shift I wasn’t quite expecting. Why the change? I’m not sure how much intent was behind it on Morgenstern’s part—interviews suggest she played with Night Circus and it went on for a long time without anything resembling a plot, she was just piecing together aspects of it that she liked. I write similarly to her (in terms of practice)—I binge write and usually focus only on the parts of the story I want to read about without always giving thought to how all those little parts are meant to connect. So I want to say that Morgenstern intentionally weeds out her female characters by the close of the book for a dose of brutal (if still wondrous) reality—the women simply wouldn’t have had the same endings as the men, this world would either own or consume them. I want to say that the way Morgenstern concluded the story with a truce—a sad, painful truce that nearly didn’t pan out—because that’s how life works, it isn’t clean cut and simple like fairy tales can make it seem. However, given what she says about her style, maybe she just likes it.
And I like her, so I’m good with the motive for the brilliance being accidental or intentional.
A note on the serendipitous Groupon I mentioned before—as I sat down weeks ago to write a review for this novel I got a call from my aunt. My mother’s birthday was coming up, we wanted to do something nice, and Groupon had a Cirque du Soleil deal—should we take it? The answer is always yes to that question—if you haven’t seen Cirque, I suggest it. I also suggest seeing it after reading Night Circus—it makes for a particular kind of viewing of the performers, appreciating that they might actually not be 100% human, and puts that dose of magic back into the live show. The particular show for Cirque I saw was Le Noir: a show that took place with only black, white… and red colors for the performers. Hit me with the Serendipity Stick. Le Noir is gritty and clearly has a motif of love, lust and loss with all the associated emotions: beauty, passion and rage.
I had previously found Night Circus to be whimsical and light (adult, certainly, but a bit like having meringues instead of cookies). Le Noir had me looking at Night Circus with a darker edge, which I appreciated. Perhaps it is coincidental that the colors of the Circus are the same as a chessboard, but I like to think that it is intentional, especially given how many pawns are on the “board”. The carelessness with which many of these secondary and tertiary characters are regarded is much darker than the idea of a “circus” might imply—the fact that characters die shocks us when it shouldn’t. After all, we haven’t been treating many of them very nicely from the start. Maybe that’s another component that makes it feel like a fairy tale—aren’t the Grimm stories dark and abusive as well?
If you want something dark and troubling or something more playful and fantastical The Night Circus will appeal to you. This is Morgenstern’s freshman novel and I can’t wait to see what else is coming down the pike. She makes me believe in modern fiction—that it can be fresh, innovative, and devoid of self-consciousness.
Erin Morgenstern’s first novel is The Night Circus and she is represented by Inkwell Management. She won the Locus for best first novel and there is probably more than one Google Alert set for “Erin Morgenstern New Book.” Summit Entertainment just bought the film rights, though no significant announcements have been made. Learn about her project “The Flax-Golden Tales” at http://erinmorgenstern.com/