Erin Morgenstern’s debut novel is, for me, full of strengths but not without a few faults as well. Set in a non-traditional circus-you won’t find a single clown or elephant here-the novel interweaves elements of the late nineteenth century fascination with the showman magician; immersive, theatrical creations; and a love story.
The plot and setting are fairly simple to describe. Two rival magicians rear and train two younger practitioners from childhood, one his daughter and the other an orphan, with the sole goal of their competing against one another in a battle of magical prowess. One of the greatest producers of theatrical spectacles in their day is led by the elder magicians to create the incomparable Night Circus, which will act as the stage for the showdown. Erin Morgenstern has a background in theater and dimensional art and it radiates through her circus. Each tent, created in turn by the rival magicians, is an enchanted world unto itself and the circus goers aren’t the only ones eager to enter the black and white canvas doors. The reader can not help but be left breathless in awe at the intricate imagination of this talented writer. Ms. Morgenstern creates an alternate reality of charm, elegance, and illusion, in turns coloring her black and white setting in tones of spellbinding beauty and somber foreboding.
Two chronological threads are written into the novel. In an interview, author Morgenstern states that she used this device to give a sense of mobility within the story, similar to the mobility of the circus itself. I personally find it a bit confusing to keep straight, but as the two threads begin to converge it is easy to see why she used the structure: the reader feels tension building as you begin to wonder if the plot lines are heading for an ethereal commingling or a collision of catastrophic proportion.
Short allegorical sections scattered between chapters provide a point of convergence between the circus theme and the story. Once the reader realizes that these sections are glimpses at impending events, their significance becomes magnified in their role of foreshadowing. In addition, these sections are used to lend a dreamy, sensory mood to the novel.
There is romance here as well, and it enfolds itself quite naturally within the evolution of the tale. At times fraught with tension and at others spun with delicacy, the passion between the two central characters is written with restraint and manages to feel wholly believable in a venue of suspended credulity.
Despite all these strong points, I can not give this novel five stars for two reasons. First, there is excessive use of tired metaphors and descriptive passages that bring to mind contrived examples from a grammar book. Overwrought might be a good choice of adjective. Yet in select passages Morgenstern’s writing seems pitch perfect, such as this quote, which drew me in on page four:
The circus looks abandoned and empty. But you think perhaps you can smell caramel wafting through the evening breeze, beneath the crisp scent of the autumn leaves. A subtle sweetness at the edges of the cold.
Does that line not awaken your senses and make them tingle? Overall it is my opinion that the originality and imaginative power of the novel more than compensate for the over-written sections.
The second, and primary, reason that I can not give the book five stars is the ending. All the loose ends are neatly tied up with a bow, which I appreciate, so that is not my issue. My issue is that the ending is passed off to a character who I judge unnecessary to make the conclusion work. I understand the role this character plays in the plot, and indeed in the structure, of the novel, but the large role the character is given at the book’s climax seems contrived to me. It almost has the sense of a movie part which was originally written fairly small, but the big name star that is being wooed to play the role says that their name will only go on the dotted line if they get to star in the pivotal moment. There are other players, in my opinion, who could have filled the role more believably. I am not trying to say that this is one of those books where the ending is so disenchanting that the book is ruined. Far from it. There are a couple of clever twists, and the structure itself is good; I simply don’t care for who Ms. Morgenstern chose to place center stage.
This novel is recommended for all mature readers. There is one sex scene and several instances of innuendo, but they are fairly restrained and I would not hesitate to allow my high schooler to read this work, despite being a rather conservative parent.
I laud Erin Morgenstern’s strong freshman effort, and though magical realism is not always my cup of cocoa, I will be on the lookout to snatch up a galley of her next novel. This one I borrowed from the library, but it is going on my purchase wish list, as I foresee it becoming a personal “comfort book” and one I loan to friends in need of an escape.