Few books this year benefited from the publicity machine as much as The Night Circus. For this novel, her first, Erin Morgenstern received a staggering seven-figure advance, the film rights were purchased months before the release of the book on September 13, and it was a bestseller in preorders. The Night Circus was a phenomenon before it even appeared.
The story follows two major threads that intersect midway through the book: the magical competition between Celia and Marco, and Le Cirque des Rêves, the circus that opens at dusk and closes at dawn. Celia and Marco are set up as competitors as young children, and the terms of the game are never clearly laid out. The circus—which to ordinary patrons consists of illusions, rather than genuine magic—becomes the arena, each component of the circus more enchanting than the last, as Celia and Marco vie for dominance while simultaneously falling in love.
The atmosphere of the book is tremendous: lush, imaginative, and sparkling with magic. It’s easy to get lost in the descriptions of the black-and-white circus that is both more and less than it appears, the midnight dinners at M. Lefèvre’s mansion, and the gaslit streets of Victorian England. The novel seems suffused with the scent of caramel and the sharp crackle of magical bonfires: the descriptions of the circus are by far the strongest element, lending their aura to the rest of the narrative.
However, the book relies too heavily on this atmosphere, substituting the heady delights of ice gardens and mysteriously tattooed contortionists for plot. Purple prose and insufficiently fleshed-out characters make it seem like the first novel it is. The source of attraction between Celia and Marco is never clear and the many one-sentence paragraphs quickly lose dramatic punch. Morgenstern has constructed her story in a way similar to Le Cirque des Rêves itself, writing in short chapters, each one containing a world unto itself. Reading through the book, then, is much like wandering into the circus tents, never knowing where, or when, or from whose perspective you will read. By far the biggest problem for this reader is that the narrative jumps around in time, making it difficult to track what little action there is.
Morgenstern does not flesh out the magical world, but we do not need to know how the magicians perform their tricks. It is enough to believe that, as the man in the grey suit says, “This is not magic. This is the way the world is, only very few people take the time to stop and note it. Look around you… Not a one of them even has an inkling of the things that are possible in this world.” Devotees of fantasy may wish for greater worldbuilding, but a vague musing on magical possibilities serves the purpose of the story well enough. Ultimately, this is an enjoyable read, a world that is pleasant to exist within, but unlike the circus, it is not a triumph.