Monday, June 6, 2011

Dreaming Is Free: The Night Circus

First off, an apology: I know it’s unkind to write about books that won’t be available for months. It’s something I don’t usually do, and I hadn’t intended to write about Erin Morgenstern’s debut novel, The Night Circus, until its release date in September… But sometimes fate – in this case, a minor head cold and a stack of books acquired at BookExpo America – takes over.

I picked The Night Circus off my book pile because I thought a novel about a dreamy circus that comes and goes without notice sounded like a perfect companion during my cold. I wasn’t wrong: The Night Circus is a page-turner about magic, love, imagination, desire, and what results when the four combine. The main plot involves Marco and Celia, two magicians whose guardians commit them in the late 1800s to a competition designed to end in death. Of course they fall in love. The mysterious competition, imposed on children by adults, felt absolutely inorganic to me, which is unfortunate since so much of the book’s action springs from it.

The circus, known as Le Cirque des Rêves, is largely a tribute to the relationship that grows out of the competition. The circus felt very much alive: Celia and Marco create attractions for each other, and, fittingly, descriptions of the circus’s wonders are Morgenstern’s greatest achievement. Morgenstern populates The Night Circus with many (dozens of?) characters but her circus details are more memorable: her intricate clocks remind of mortality, her bottles contain stories, and her dresses change color. They feel more real, more lifelike than her people, with one exception: a boy from Massachusetts, Bailey, who first enters the circus on a dare, when it is closed.

What’s most interesting about The Night Circus is the underlying power of circus attractions to draw people by playing on imagination, dreams, and illusion. Morgenstern incorporates themes about magic and circuses that I’ve run across in several Russian novels, emphasizing the role of the observer, who must be open to illusion. I’m open as a reader, too, and I had little trouble believing in the circus’s ever-burning cauldron, never-melting ice, mysterious train, and acrobatic kittens. But I wasn’t sure what to make of the rêveurs who follow the circus – and their own dreams – around the world, wearing identifying red scarves. Maybe it’s because the rêveurs felt more earthly than the circus but, with the exception of the original rêveur, they felt a bit cultish. (Or maybe it’s because “rêveur” sounds like “raver”?) Like many of the characters and motifs (e.g. public faces and masks) in The Night Circus, they felt a little underdrawn, as if they could have contributed more to the novel but lost out to description of scenery.

I came away from The Night Circus feeling ambivalent. Morgenstern’s stylized language conjures up vivid places, smells, and atmospheres that make for wonderful entertainment even if you’re not a big fan of circuses, and the book reads almost like a lucid dream. But The Night Circus lacked power for a reader like me who enjoys characters that develop through the course of a novel: here, the people and their stories seem schematic and secondary to the attractions they create, and the novel’s messages about imagination and love didn’t feel especially original despite much loveliness. The Night Circus hit on many of my other negative biases, too, but I have to say that the novel’s circus still drew me in… though its effects are fading quickly, like the ephemeral, image-laden dreams and nightmares of what passes for real life.

Disclaimer: I received an advance review copy of The Night Circus from Doubleday/Random House at BookExpo America, thank you! I also took a bag of caramel corn that went with it and should probably disclose my gratitude to Doubleday/Random House for the snack since I was very, very hungry at the time. Not that The Night Circus needs much help from the likes of me: my impression is that The Night Circus was one of the most visible books at this year’s BEA.

Up Next: Hans Keilson’s The Death of the Adversary.


  1. You certainly earned your bag of caramel corn. Beautifully written review. I really enjoyed reading it.

  2. Thanks very much, Slam bang! I'm glad you enjoyed the post.