Come One, Come All (Maybe) to Erin Morgenstern’s Debut novel, The Night Circus

Several months ago, we posted a story about the debut of novelist Erin Morgenstern and her book, The Night Circus, which has been released, and which I have now gotten around to reading. When I wrote the initial article back in the summer, I was concerned about the way the publishing mavens (whom we call Gamemakers for their Capitol-esque approach) were manufacturing Morgenstern into their next cash cow. I was also amazed at all the hoopla surrounding the release of a book by a previously unpublished author, since such shenanigans are usually the norm for highly anticipated later installments of series like those of Rowling, Meyer, Riordan, and Collins. Yet, for her first novel (and it’s a stand-alone, not a series), Morgenstern got the whole bookstore-themes, entertainment, and costumed fans package we’ve come to expect from books 2, 4, or 7, rather than 1. Is the novel a magical must-read or the emperor’s new clothes? Follow me under the striped big top, and we’ll see.

Morgenstern has indicated that she began her process of writing the novel without a clear narrative vision, instead imagining a series of vignettes set in a dark, fin-de-siecle circus. That original vision remains in the novel’s structure, which, like the clock that is the centerpiece for the titular Le Circque des Reves, sort of falls apart and comes back together again: “bits of the body of the clock expand and contract, like pieces of a puzzle. As though the clock is falling apart, slowly and gracefully” (69). The separate components of the novel follow the pivotal characters in the circus’s creation, interspersed with later moments in the circus’s history seen through the eyes of reveurs (the black, white, and red- dressed fans who follow the circus all over the globe): the clock’s designer turned circus journalist, young circus afficiando Bailey (don’t get excited; there’s no one named Barnum that I noticed), and the readers ourselves as we travel through the circus (I’m not a big fan of using second person, but it makes sense here). With the exception of the last thread, the one telling us where we are going in the circus, each has a date and a (usually exotic) locale, leading up to the big Halloween 1902 climax.

Ostensibly, the story is about a pair of young, talented magicians locked in a duel to the death with the circus as venue (and of course they fall in love), but, like a good circus, the story is an ensemble piece, and it is hard to say who really is the star of the show. Rather, the various intertwined stories function, like the circus itself, as separate but interconnected tents that work together as a cohesive whole. The real ringmaster of the circus is Morgenstern, as she seems to be the only one who really knows where all the rings of her story will intersect.

Oh yes, this is an author who has picked up on the power of the ring. The circus itself is a series of intersecting, confusing rings, with circular tents and a circular bonfire in a cauldron at its center. The protagonists are sealed to the challenge, in childhood, with rings that burn scars into their skin. Obviously, this is a more than a three-ring affair, as Morgenstern sees that the ring is not just a clever part of circus showmanship, but rather something that, like the fascinating clock, can hold this story together.

And we have alchemey, oh do we have alchemy! Have I mentioned that the color scheme is black, white, and red? Morgenstern mentions that about every other paragraph, too.

She also relies heavily on the use of mirrored elements. The circus is entirely black and white, with touches of gray, presenting a bit of a challenge for the ginger-haired Murray twins, born on either side of midnight on the circus’s opening night ( Friday the thirteenth in October, of course). No matter, the twins, Poppet and Widget, hide their hair and she wears all white, he all black in their trained cat act (black and white kittens, of course; their parents are the wild cat tamers). But the Murrays, like many of the other characters in this circus, are more than they seem, and their doppleganger role is emphasized by her ability to see the future, and his to read people’s past (and tell stories about it).

And, of course, there is plenty of the usual circus fare, including more descriptions of food than anyone should have to read on an empty stomach, but the real drama is not in the center of a tent, but between the large cast of characters. It is, as one would expect from a story about magicians (who are real magicians hiding their abilities in plain sight as illusion) a story that is often magical, drawing from popular culture with homages to everything from Moulin Rouge to Something Wicked This Way Comes, from the great magician movie The Prestige to the world of steampunk.

Yet, I am not sure I am ready to don a red scarf and call myself a reveur. I can certainly appreciate Morgenstern’s artistry, which is considerable. She has done a lovely job of making a story that functions like the circus itself, and specifically like its signature clock. The sensory details are spectacular, really bringing the circus to life and creating a truly wonderful ambience.

So why am I not singing and dancing and telling everyone I meet to read the book (as I have been known to do with The Hunger Games, for example)? Though I do see how well the book is put together, I find its emphasis on the Tarot not terribly appealing (though the bookstores are loving it, putting out gaboodles of themed Tarot cards and having “readers” out at the release parties). I guess, like Hermione, I just don’t see much of interest in fortune-telling. Also, the characters, though interesting, remain, for the most part, like performers in the circus: beautiful, fascinating, and evocative, but distant. I am also concerned that the book will inevitably be pushed on younger readers as the “next” Harry Potter or Twilight, when a number of its elements are ones that would prevent me from sharing the book with younger readers I know. The inevitable movie will also bring in hordes of younger readers, though I am curious to see how the movie Gamemakers will deal with the odd structure and the absence of obvious leading characters ( Marco, the male magician competitor, actually has a fake face he wears for most people, making his leading man possibility less certain). Those movie mavens are probably thrilled that there is already a built-in fan name and dress code in the book, so no need to create those.

I am also still concerned about the manufacturing process that lies behind the book. Though Morgenstern wrote the book as a stand alone and it clearly functions as a single volume, the publishers clearly want more of the same, and the shelves of bookstores will doubtless now be as cluttered with circus stuff as they have been with vampire stuff and wizard stuff, very little of which has much of the artistry or the deeper meaning of the books that started the craze. Doubtless there will be a legion of monochromatic acrobats and other such nonsense that completely lacks the deft structuring or whimsical imagery that make The Night Circus work. These pale imitations will, like some of the characters in the novel, fail to recognize real magic at work.


  1. I am just beginning this now and I find the tarot cards disturbing, as well as the unnecessary infliction of pain. It reminds me of that tv series “Heroes” in the second to last year with the carinval. The style of writing is intriguing though, kind of like she is trying to create the illusion of something with her very words, letting them swoop and drop and fly casually, with no tidy little endings, just more mystery.

  2. I read the book, too, and I thought the descriptions of the setting were remarkable, but the plot didn’t ever gel for me, and the characters were not as interesting as the circus. Gorgeous imagery, but not a lot else.

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