On my way back from New York—especially amid the two-hour delay waiting for the plane to get to New York (I love the rain but not when I’ve got a full flight ahead of me)—I began reading Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus. I received the novel as a gift two years ago from a friend I’ve since lost contact with and after having two other friends read it and rave about it, I decided it was time to pick up the novel and see what it was all about.
I actually saw Erin Morgenstern in Manhattan about three years ago at a reading with Neil Gaiman. I remember feeling kind of ashamed that I hadn’t read her book. She was a lovely person, very nice, and from her reading, I figured I would like her novel a lot. The prose itself sounded gorgeous.
And gorgeous it was. The writing is absolutely beautiful. It paints an intimate, yet sprawling tapestry of the circus, a kind of Tim Burton movie paired with the rich magic of Harry Potter, a black and white striped world smelling of churros, hot chocolate, and caramel apples. The tale presents an array of interesting characters, many of whom I was excited to get to know, and especially to see how Morgenstern was to weave all of them into the promised synopsis found on the back flap describing “a fierce competition is underway, a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood expressly for this purpose by their mercurial instructors.”
I wanted so badly to fall in love with this book.
It’s difficult to say why the story did not resonate with me, especially when there was so much good happening. The writing stands strong on two legs, but very soon I came to find out the tale was not so much about the dueling magicians than it was about the circus itself—how it was made, where it traveled, how it affected the lives of those who visited it. It specifically inspired a sect of people called reveurs, dreamers in red, who dedicated their lives to following the circus place to place. It impacted those who had created it and all of those working within it. The story had beautiful gorgeous magic—the kind that made you wish magic lived in the world just so you could be in awe of it. So what exactly was the missing link?
The Night Circus is unique. While it promises dueling magicians fighting to the death with the circus as their arena, it doesn’t deliver that plot in the expected Michael Bay play-by-play of explosions that the synopsis claims. The duelists, Marco and Celia, actually have very little interaction and their acquaintance spans over a great period of time. Honestly, that’s still not even the problem with the book—it’s what makes it so different to a lot of novels that are populating the shelves nowadays. Their fight isn’t gruesome; it’s actually magically crafting beautiful exhibitions for the circus. The point wasn’t to have some brutal and bloody knock-out round. It was focused on survival.
I had it described to me in this way: the duelists were bound together and the circus became something that they were both responsible for magically maintaining. Each new tent they created was an added magical burden, exhausting each of them to the point where losing the duel correlated with one of them giving up and dying from exhaustion. It was like each of them had an IV bag permanently attached to them. Each new magical element added strain to it and they had to use the fluid in the IV bag more to keep the circus alive. But how long could each one of them survive once the IV bag drained? Who would be the one to succumb to mental and/or physical exhaustion?
It’s a fantastic idea. I liked that a lot. My problem came down to the lack of developed relationships between the characters. I failed to care about the story. Which is so hard to say.
I’ll start of easy. The romance between Maro and Celia was hollow. They barely know each other and when they finally decided they wanted to be together, it happened so randomly it didn’t make sense. They didn’t have any kind of conversation—just a few smoldering looks across the room and the vibration from their binding. It was a romance that developed out of being bound more than mutual attraction to each other and it came off as so false, a lowbrow romance composed of a simple “hey baby, you’re hot,” which suddenly inspired a lifetime of Romeo and Juliet devotion. Maybe I just don’t ‘get’ firecracker instant love. I want my romance steeped in a slow burn, which was what this kind of story deserved. Since a great deal of time passed between the protagonists seeing each other, one would assume each interaction would be meaningful and new, revealing new layers to the characters, instead of fattening their conversation with information the reader already knew.
Although, to be fair, the party scene where Marco kisses Celia in the middle of the dance floor, making the entire room tremble and transforming Celia’s dress into a beautiful forest green was absolutely breath-taking.
Honestly, Celia and Marco just didn’t have that initial meet cute. Much of it is ‘told’ instead of ‘shown.’ I think one of my favorite parts—a meeting that I genuinely thought was between Marco and Celia—actually occurred between Marco and his first slighted love interest, Isobel. Isobel finds Marco’s spellbook on the ground. He tracks it back to her. They have wine at a restaurant. He shows her what he can do with his magic and then they kiss against the wall. Here, I’ll provide it for you:
Isobel is baffled. It is real. She can feel the sun against her skin and the bark of the tree beneath her fingers. The cold of the snow is palpable, though she realizes her dress is no longer wet form the rain. Even the air she is breathing into her lungs is unmistakably crisp country air, with not a hint of London smog. It cannot be, but it is real…
…“You’re a magician,” she says.
“I don’t think anyone has actually called me that before,” Marco responds. Isobel laughs again, and she is still laughing when he leans closer and kisses her.
The pair of birds circle overhead as a light wind blows through the branches of the tress around them.
To a passerby on the darkened London street, they look like nothing out of the ordinary, only young lovers kissing in the rain.
I mean, that’s a genuine start to a freaking romance. I saw them meet, I saw them get to know each other, I saw each of them open up about something I didn’t know about them before. All of these things did not happen between Marco and Celia. It was like once the main love story took place, the potential love story that was forming all on its own was snuffed out. You know how characters never do what you tell them to? They simply have a mind of their own and want to do the only thing they want to? The way a story takes on a life of its own? I feel like this story wanted to do something else and was forced into a mold that didn’t quite fit. For goodness sake, the YA love story between Baily and Poppet had more sparkle than whatever was supposed to exist between Celia and Marco. I was more engaged with the side characters than I was with the protagonists.
I guess I’m in love with stories based on relationships. It’s more important than the plot. No, that’s not right. It’s the basis of the plot. If you can have two people suddenly fall in love while sitting down for coffee, or even two siblings working out some kind of shit they had to deal with while they were young, you have an actual story that can be revealed through conversation. I like to read stories about how we heal and devastate each other, how another person can fuck you up and create you into something new. Connection is the problem with The Night Circus.
Without the development of a relationship between characters—something that reaches beyond just niceties or basic friendships, I’m talking about finding that person at two in the morning because you can’t sleep and you need to know what they think—you don’t get an easy development of the plot itself. Take the Japanese contortionist, Tsukiko. She revealed that she was a previous magician in a previous game. I was literally screaming for someone, fuck anyone, to take her aside and get her to tell her story. I mean, a freaking conversation between Isobel and Tsukiko—who somehow became very close during the novel, why, I mean, I don’t know they just suddenly were besties—would have been incredibly informative. They could have dished about how Marco was a jerk and Tsukiko could have explained how she lost her love in the duel and they could have had a great lesbian scene but no. Instead, Tsukiko comes out saying, “BTW I was a magician once upon a time fighting this same duel and like, I won.” This is prime real estate for character development. Instead of pursuing that line of conversation and learning just what the hell is the point of ‘the duel,’ Celia kind of goes, “Oh damn gurl, that’s insane.”
And then that was it. I about pulled my hair out at this point.
What exactly was the game supposed to prove? I mean, beyond what we are told, the game is supposed to pit a competitor who has more natural talent in magic against one who was taught through books. I mean, it seemed like anyone could learn magic if they had the time and ambition. No one had to wait for a letter delivered by owl. At first, I thought a main point of the story would be that magic was stronger when it was contained to a few people and that if it got out to the general public, or anyone who was willing to learn, the power would diminish. Like a dilution. But that didn’t end up proving to be true.
The magic obviously had consequences. I mean look at Marco’s boss, Chandresh. He pretty much got Alzheimer’s due to Marco erasing his memory every single day. Yet Marco didn’t show any regret over that. No inner turmoil about what the magic was doing to anyone—or even how much of a jerk he was—even over people who had been devoted to him. A good portion of the book was the circus founders discovering they were nearly immortal and neither Celia or Marco had an oh-shit moment, possibly considering that maybe the magic was not such a good thing to people they cared about.
Furthering these questions—that could easily be solved through meaningful character development: what was the relationship between Prospero and the man in grey? They just differed about opinion? They had a fight and then they dueled with each other for centuries? I mean, don’t they have feelings about this? We learn near the end that the man in grey has feelings for his champions—even though he barely has any interaction with any of them—but good god tell us why. Why doesn’t he talk with Tsukiko? Is he guilty? Why don’t they have it out? Why doesn’t anyone get angry in this novel?
I’m just…want to know why.
Each character has something to tell, and more importantly something to tell each other, but they never have the chance to speak or be in the same room long enough or stop their cryptic dialogue to make any kind of tension, and thus, the characters don’t have the chance to speak to the readers. They’re like shadows. Maybe I’m missing the whole thing. Maybe, I should be focusing on what the novel does excel at: creating a mysterious setting that’s as beautiful as it is empty.