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The Night Circus

December 7, 2011

As one of you observed in the comments recently, I’ve been in need of a really good book.  And as I read that comment, I had just finished a really good one.  In fact, I stretched out my reading of the book because it was so wonderful I didn’t want to finish too fast.  The book is Erin Morgenstern’s novel The Night Circus.

Everything about this book was special, from the moment I won it in a giveaway at The Book Journey to the day it arrived gift-wrapped in black and white striped tissue paper with a red ribbon and I opened it up to find an epigraph by Oscar Wilde: “A dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world.” That seems to me the perfect way to introduce the fragility and splendor created in this novel.

Olivia Laing, in The Guardian, says the novel suffers from an “excess of kittens,” which as bloggers know, is quite impossible–and besides, it leads to the evocative chapter title “Ailuromancy.”  Nothing about this novel seemed excessive to me, at least on first reading.  If all the food is sugary, it’s because that’s how dreams are, from the dinners in Hook to the madeleine in Remembrance of Things Past.  If the physical culmination of the love affair is more implied than described, that’s because we don’t need to see that much of the man behind the curtain.

As many previous reviewers have observed, the circus itself is the main character–there’s not a lot of plot or action in The Night Circus, nor are the characters particularly well developed. The magic of it is that even though the water is perfectly clear, you can’t see to the bottom.

The way the story is told is part of the charm, with lots of time spent on setting the scene and choosing just the right words to describe it. This is part of a description of the end of Halloween at the circus: “most people seek their fortunes early in the evening. The late of the night is suited for less cerebral pursuits. Earlier the querents filed in almost nonstop, but as October fades into November there is no one waiting in the vestibule.” The circus moves around without notice, so on a subsequent Halloween night, “children are dragged away with promises that they may return the next evening, although the circus will not be there the next evening and later those children will feel slighted and betrayed.”

People who love books will love the description of what it’s like to live surrounded by them: “she ran out of space for her library some time ago, but instead of making the room larger she has opted to let the books become the room. Piles of them function as tables, others hang suspended from the ceiling.”

At one point, a character tries necromancy, but it doesn’t work: “I tried. I thought I might be able to fix it. I’ve known him so long. That maybe it would be like setting a clock to make it tick again. I knew exactly what was wrong but I couldn’t make it right.”

There is no hero who is born to make things right with the circus when they go wrong, but there is a volunteer, who is told “you’re in the right place at the right time, and you care enough to do what needs to be done.” I like to think that showing up and caring could be enough to make me the hero of a story, even though in this story “good and evil are a great deal more complex than a princess and a dragon, or a wolf and a scarlet-clad little girl. And is not the dragon the hero of his own story?” Even more, I like the self-conscious flourish of the ending: “you may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone’s soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose. That tale will move them and drive them and who knows what they might do because of it, because of your words.”

The circus has aficionados, or reveurs, “who see the details in the bigger picture of the circus….They are enthusiasts, devotees. Addicts. Something about the circus stirs their souls, and they ache for it when it is absent….They seek each other out, these people….when they depart, they shake hands and embrace like old friends, even if they have only just met, and as they go their separate ways they feel less alone than they had before.” This is how I feel when I meet people who regularly reread The Lord of the Rings, or Firefly fans, or book bloggers. And the best part is that “the circus knows of them, and appreciates them,” like when an author I adore sends me an advance copy of his next novel. In fact, Erin Morgenstern identifies some of the reviewers who have liked her novel as “reveurs” on her website. I am one. I hope to be one.

31 Comments leave one →
  1. December 7, 2011 2:26 pm

    I really love that passage about reveurs and enthusiasts. I think this is a book I’ll really enjoy if I approach it with the right sort of expectations (that it will be about the circus itself and the atmosphere and the lovely descriptions, rather than a neat plot and character development). Fingers crossed that I’ll find it under my Christmas tree.

    Also, I had more or less reached review burnout when it came to this book, but reading your thoughts was like hearing about it for the very first time. Thank you for doing that.

    • December 7, 2011 9:51 pm

      And thank you for the pretty compliment! I really do think you’ll like this book, if you save it for a time when you’re not expecting a lot of adventure, but want something quieter.

  2. freshhell permalink
    December 7, 2011 2:48 pm

    I like the idea of books suspended from the ceiling.

    • December 7, 2011 9:50 pm

      She has birds, too–some of the books are for the birds to perch on, I think. My image of this is of a chain we had for my daughter’s stuffed toys, so they could hang from the ceiling and be out of the way.

  3. December 7, 2011 3:38 pm

    I’ve been on the fence about reading this one. There’s so much hype and I don’t want to expect too much. I may wait a bit to make sure I appreciate it.

    • December 7, 2011 9:48 pm

      I’ve missed a lot of the hype, what with one thing and another this fall. I feel unapologetic about following the crowd, though.

  4. December 7, 2011 3:56 pm

    Oh Jeanne! Now I am torn! I read Jenny’s review and decided it was not for me…and now your review has me dithering again. Maybe Melissa has the right idea: I’ll wait awhile and read it when the hype has died down. Plus, I will probably get it on sale then.

    • December 7, 2011 9:48 pm

      Just don’t wait too long. Maybe read it when you’re in a contemplative, hibernating mood.

  5. December 7, 2011 4:32 pm

    I actually thought the characters were well developed, but otherwise, I completely agree. I don’t know if you saw, but I went as a reveur for Halloween. 🙂

    • December 7, 2011 9:47 pm

      What a good costume idea! I think I’ll dress as one often, and secretly.

  6. Ron permalink
    December 7, 2011 5:16 pm

    I was amused that the Oscar Wilde epigraph has a comma splice.

    When I saw the author’s name, I assumed that Erin Morgenstern was the daughter of the great S. Morgenstern, author of The Princess Bride. It seems she may be, at least in spirit.

    • December 7, 2011 9:46 pm

      If this is the “good parts version,” I don’t think I want to read the longer, unedited version with more of the history!
      It really isn’t a comma splice because of the “and.”

  7. December 7, 2011 7:02 pm

    Were there kittens? I don’t remember any kittens at all, and can’t remember why there would have been ailuromancy at all. If that’s what I think it is, divining the future based on how cats move around and pounce on their prey and whatnot.

    • December 7, 2011 9:44 pm

      Poppet and Widget do an act with kittens: “as he lifts his black-gloved hand, palm open, one of the kittens jumps into it and bounces off his palm, leaping through the hoop, executing a rather impressive somersault at the pinnacle of its leap.” Poppet tells Bailey that their parents do a show with big cats. You see them with the kittens several times, including once at Chandresh’s party and then at the end, of course, when Poppet brings Chandresh a kitten named Ara.

  8. December 7, 2011 8:37 pm

    I was curious to see what you’d think … I was actually kind of expecting you to go against the grain and not like this book but I see you fell for it like most others!

  9. December 7, 2011 10:46 pm

    So many people have been recommending this one to me. It may be my next Kindle purchase.

    • December 8, 2011 7:12 am

      I think it would be good for the kind of reading you do in short bursts while waiting for things. Every time I dipped into it, it made me calmer.

  10. December 7, 2011 11:22 pm

    Oh, what a great review! I admit I was not a huge fan of this book at all and don’t see what the fuss is about, but if I had NOT already read it, I think your review would make me want to 🙂

    • December 8, 2011 7:14 am

      So the review might be misleading? As we were saying about The Leftovers, mood can be a factor in how much we like reading a book, and certainly an inveterate reader of fantasy novels like me is well set up to like this one in a way that others might not be.

  11. December 8, 2011 9:14 am

    great review. still haven’t read this but maybe someday. not sure if it would be my thing or not but i appreciate your thoughts!

    • December 8, 2011 9:52 am

      You like good writing, and there’s plenty of that.

  12. December 8, 2011 12:32 pm

    So glad to see you enjoyed this book. The descriptions are just wonderful, aren’t they?

  13. December 8, 2011 7:50 pm

    I feel like I want to love this book only because you do. I’ve been on the fence – too many bloggers with too much love for this tends to dampen my enthusiasm. SO. I will wait and let the (magic) dust settle a bit.

  14. trapunto permalink
    December 8, 2011 10:04 pm

    Into the library queue it goes. Apparently I am number 75 in a queue of 75, yet I am told my expected wait time is 1 day. Either the system has tons of copies, or I should feel slighted and betrayed!

  15. December 8, 2011 10:16 pm

    Woo, yay, I’m glad this one was good! I totally know the feeling of just needing that next book to be a good one. I will have to put this one on my list for sometime in the future when I need something great to help pull me out of a slump or something 🙂

  16. December 16, 2011 7:51 am

    Guess what I bought this week! 🙂


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