Send In the Clowns

Author: Erin Morgenstern

Night CircusWhen I Googled The Night Circus to see if there were any interesting tidbits I could add to this review to make myself appear more knowledgeable, the first result that came up was an IMDB listing for the forthcoming movie (currently in development). Which makes all kinds of sense, because this dreamy, candy-coated magical fantasy novel was made to be turned into a gorgeous special-effects extravaganza. What remains to be seen is whether a screenwriter can tighten up the meandering, occasionally tedious plot and listless romance and liven up the beautiful setting with some action.

Set at the turn of the twentieth century, this is the story of the Night Circus, a magical nocturnal circus that appears without warning in the middle of the night. The entire thing is created in black-and-white, from the tents to the performers’ outfits to the food served, and unlike a traditional big top, a multitude of small tents (which seem mysteriously bigger inside) lead to such mind-boggling wonders as a multi-story Cloud Maze, a dazzlingly intricate Ice Garden, and a gravity-defying carousel. The circus travels seemingly at random and its inner workings are shrouded in mystery, but its greatest secret is this: it’s powered by magic. Magic is real!

Delightful as it is — and although its nominal owner believes it was created for the usual business reasons — the Night Circus’s true purpose is to serve as a venue for a super-secret, decades-long magical duel between a great magician and his estranged former student. For no good reason, these embittered magicians don’t slug it out directly, instead choosing and training promising young students, who are locked together in a bizarrely nonconfrontational… exhibition to the death? It’s confusing. Anyway, this time around, the students are Celia and Marco — Celia is the daughter of one of the magicians, and Marco is plucked from an orphanage by the other. Their game of oneupsmanship only makes the Night Circus better and better as they add on each new competing creation, but ultimately somebody has to win and somebody has to DIE, because that’s just how it is. So, naturally, Celia and Marco fall in love! Can they put a stop to the rivalry and save the Night Circus from the duel’s destruction?

There are two main problems with the book: the central conflict doesn’t make sense, and there’s simply no romantic tension between the lovers at all. In fact, while it’s been described as a “magical romance,” that’s somewhat misleading — the romance is downplayed nearly to nonexistence, and is basically a plot contrivance to inject some artificial suspense into Celia and Marco’s competition. A cast of colorful, but thin, minor characters remain mostly window dressing, even though most of them seem more interesting than the main characters. We never even learn what philosophical difference separated the former teacher and student to start off this pointless battle, let alone why they have to fight by proxy or what this proves. WHO CARES. (And the problematic pacing isn’t helped by the jarring switch to second-person passages, stuck in between chapters, describing individual circus attractions.)

Without a doubt, Circus is richly imagined and lyrically written. Clearly, Erin Morgenstern loves the black-and-white world that she’s painted in lush, fanciful brushstrokes. Your enthusiasm for the story, however, will depend entirely on how willing you are to read multi-page descriptions of, say, an illusionist’s magic tricks, or the workings of a clock. If you enjoy detailed, evocative passages that conjure up charming images of set pieces, you’ll have a lot of fun putting your mind’s eye to work on her descriptions. The rest of us may end up feeling a little bored.

I suspect the movie version will lean much more heavily on the romance, and ease off on the murky motives and ambiguous morals of the dueling magicians — which would be a great improvement. In fact, unless you really like reading descriptions of caramel apples, it’s probably best to just go ahead and wait for the movie. You’ll never hear me say that again!

— Stephenie P.

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Stephanie Perry
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