I really ought to stop reading books I strongly suspect I won’t enjoy. But Erin Morgentstern’s The Night Circus had a high rating on Goodreads, and after finishing Atonement, I wanted something a bit lighter. Well, I certainly got it…
When reading Young Adult fiction, I often get a distorted sense of déjà vu. It seems like there’s a finite number of proven-to-be-profitable topics that are deemed appropriate for YA authors to discuss. Dystopias have been popular for the last several years, but magic is probably even more prominent. So, too, are lightly historicized settings in which few details and little regard to accuracy are given. Romance is crucial, but it must be cliché, not idiosyncratic, to ensure that all members of the target audience can relate to it. Social issues should preferably be entirely absent, or disguised as platitudes. These elements are blended together in varying quantities and combinations, then churned out as a series of hard-to-differentiate, but unchallenging and easy-to-read, mass-market concoctions. And sometimes, if the author is lucky, his or her banality will be rewarded with a movie deal.
Morgenstern’s The Night Circus is the result of precisely that kind of exercise. In 1873 New York, stage magician Prospero the Enchanter has just completed a performance. He is displeased to learn that one of the women with whom he had an affair has killed herself, leaving him the sole guardian of his five-year-old daughter, Celia. Prospero is cruel and unemotional toward his daughter, and when he realizes the extent of her magical capabilities, he does not hesitate to enter Celia into a binding competition with another, as yet unidentified, magician. Prospero believes that all magical acts should be instinctive; he scorns the practiced methodology of his rival, Mr. Alexander H–, “the man in the grey suit.” Prospero trains Celia in an ad hoc fashion, while Mr. Alexander forces Marco, a boy plucked from an orphanage in London, to read hundreds of ancient magical volumes and memorize thousands of charms and symbols. And thus the two competitors grow up, each aware of the other’s existence, but never formally introduced.
Eventually, after a respectable amount of time has passed and Marco and Cecilia are both in their physical prime, a venue for their competition is created. Imagined by Chandresh Christophe Lefevre, an ostentatiously wealthy theater producer, and created by a team of vaguely magical conspirators, Le Cirque des Rêves (The Circus of Dreams) is a fantastical black-and-white circus open only at night that features genuinely magical performers. Cecilia is quickly employed as the circus illusionist, while Marco works as Mr. Lefevre’s assistant in London. The circus travels across the world in a magic train, its upcoming venues a perpetual surprise. Since Marco cannot be physically present in the circus, he casts a spell on the massive bonfire that allows him to participate in the competition from afar — though the specifications of this arrangement are never discussed.
These events comprise approximately 1/5 of the book. The remaining 400 pages are what really frustrated me.
A few of the book’s (and YA fiction’s) biggest issues:
#1: Generic Historical Setting
The Night Circus begins in 1873 and ends in 1903. This arbitrary selection of years lends the novel an undeserved “historic” setting. It is based on the romanticized idea of an era, not the era itself, and contains little to no actual historical detail. It’s far enough in the past to grant the author immunity from historical accuracy; the average reader knows nothing about late 19th-century society apart from the fact that women still wore gowns. Admittedly, The Night Circus is not billed as historical fiction, but exploiting a vaguely historic setting because of the misperception that certain eras are inherently more “romantic” or “daring” than others has become far too common of a trend in books and movies alike.
#2: Lack of Characterization
Celia, Marco, Prospero the Enchanter, Mr. Lefevre, Bailey, Lainie and Tara, Isobel, the man in the grey suit… None of these characters are even granted a full physical description, despite the book’s focus on visuality. They are sketches that exist merely to populate the void, the never-quite-grounded world of the Night Circus. When a fairly major character dies, there is virtually no emotional impact, and it has zero effect on the plot. A couple hundred pages later, after nothing has happened for a while, another major character dies both randomly and unnecessarily. Characters fall in love, commit suicide, leave their families, etc.; all of these actions are received with complete indifference.
The most egregious example of this hollow characterization, Mr. Alexander H–, a.k.a. Marco’s instructor, a.k.a., the man in the grey suit, is a wizard-like man who no one seems to notice — justifiably so, since he never does any magic. He rarely talks, is always wearing that damn grey suit (also, why it is a GREY suit, not a GRAY suit, since the rest of the spelling in the novel is conventionally American?), and he lacks a shadow. Ooo, mysterious.
#3: Stunted Dialogue
As a result of its quasi-Victorian setting, the dialogue in The Night Circus is unbearably stuffy. Again, though, these conversations are based on modern-day stereotypes of the 1880s, not genuine Victorian conversations. Compare this excerpt from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, published in 1847, with a conversation between Celia and Marco, below:
‘Jane, be still; don’t struggle so like a wild, frantic bird, that is rending its own plumage in its desperation.’
‘I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being, with an independent will; which I now exert to leave you.’
Another effort set me at liberty, and I stood erect before him.
‘And your will shall decide your destiny,’ he said: ‘I offer you my hand, my heart, and a share of all my possessions.’
The conversation between Jane and her beloved Mr. Rochester is formal, certainly, but it’s also beautifully written and full of characteristic symbolism. In contrast, Cecila’s interactions with Marco are hollow and cloaked in clichés:
It is around this time that Celia becomes certain that the umbrella she is holding is not her own.
‘Excuse me, Miss Bowen,” a voice calls to her, lifted over the din of the rain and carried down the street. A voice she recognizes even before she turns to find Marco standing behind her…
‘I believe you have my umbrella,’ he says, almost out of breath but wearing a grin that has too much wolf in it to be properly sheepish…
Once Celia composes herself she gives him a low, perfect curtsey…
‘My sincere apologies,’ she says, the amusement still sparkling in her eyes.
‘I would very much like to speak with you, if you care to join me for a drink,’ Marco says… The wind whips Celia’s dark curls in wet ropes across her face as she considers him, watching his eyes as the raindrops evaporate from his lashes. (pp. 200-201)
A rendezvous in the rain, a superficial misunderstanding, an inexplicable curtsey, dark curls and luscious eyelashes. Which brings me to…
#4: Hollow Romance
Because I have difficulty remembering characters’ names, I take notes on a loose piece of paper that I discard once I’ve finished my review of a book. My notes on The Night Circus were rather amusing, containing gems such as “bleargh vom romance” and “Marco Alisdair: the contender, green eyes, destined for Celia, probably.”
Predictably, the two opponents grow up to be remarkably good-looking people who are deeply attracted to one another, despite having only a handful of conversations scattered across decades.
[Marco] could tell from across the room that she was lovely, but when she is near enough to look him in the eyes the loveliness — the shape of her face, the contrast of her hair against her skin — evolves into something more. She is radiant. (p. 89)
The chiseled features become softer and younger. His striking green eyes fade to a green-tinged grey. The false face had been handsome, yes, but consciously so… He feels closer, though the distance between them has not changed, and his face is quite handsome, still. The intensity of his stare increases with these eyes; looking at him now she can see deeper, without being distracted by the color. Celia can feel the heat rising up her neck… (p. 263)
It’s a typical Disney romance featuring two ridiculously attractive protagonists whose only real obstacle is not being able to be with each other. Best of all, Celia and Marco loved each other before they even knew each other’s identities — their fate was sealed the day they became opponents in a magic show. How convenient! The resulting conversations are nauseating rather than inspiring:
‘I do,’ Celia says. ‘I have you here, all around me. I sit in the Ice Garden to get a hint of this, this way that you make me feel. I felt it even before I knew who you were, and every time I think it could not possibly get any stronger, it does.’ (p. 336-337)
Add a few contractions, and you’ve got the lyrics to the next hit pop song.
The romance would have been more palatable had it not been unnecessarily spread out for 16 years. The circus begins in 1886; Celia and Marco’s first conversation takes place in 1894; they briefly hold hands in 1896; after not speaking for three years, they kiss (in front of people! how scandalous) in 1899; in 1901, Celia decides they should cease all romantic activity, but later that year they succumb to their carnal urges and have sex. After a year of frustrating abstinence, in 1902 Celia traps them in the circus for infinity.
The rest of the novel moves at a similarly glacial pace. One character dies under suspicious circumstances, but it takes FIVE YEARS for her twin sister to start asking questions. It takes nearly 400 pages for the rules of the competition between Marco and Celia to be established, and another 50 pages before the book finally reaches its long-overdue climax. The remaining chapters are a poor excuse for a denouement, containing only slightly more information than the bloated exposition.
#5 – Disorganization
Overall, the novel comes across as disorganized and unwieldy. The plot is split into several different time frames, which give the impression of movement without actually advancing anything. Someone has probably argued that the shifting stories are a metaphor for the circus’ infinity, but, frankly, that gives the novel more credit than it is due.
Furthermore, there are several significant issues that never get resolved. What happened to Celia’s father, a victim of his own overambitious magic trick? He floats in and out of the story, but he’s really only there as a matter of convenience, an instigator of the competition and a perceived impediment to Celia’s relationship with Marco. Are Celia and Marco still alive at the end of the story? Or do they just exist in the ether, in some sort of undefined boundary between reality and the beyond? But, most importantly, how much did a damn admission ticket to the circus cost?!
One of the primary plot “twists” involves the revelation that Celia has secretly been controlling the circus since its inception. This announcement seems both unnecessary (why would Celia need to protect the inhabitants of the circus, all of whom are magical and presumably capable of performing their stunts without supervision?) and contradictory to the discussion of Celia’s powers. Fourteen years earlier, in 1887, a new tent appears in the circus and Celia goes to investigate:
The sign proclaims something called the Ice Garden, and Celia smiles at the addendum below which contains an apology for any thermal inconvenience. Despite the name, she is not prepared for what awaits her inside the tent. It is exactly what the sign described. But it is so much more than that… everything is sparkling and white. She cannot tell how far it stretches, the size of the tent obscured by cascading willows and twisting vines… And everything, save for occasional lengths of white silk ribbon strung like garlands, is made of ice… Celia cannot imagine how much power and skill it would take not only to construct such a thing but to maintain it as well. (p. 148)
If Celia lacks the power to maintain a single tent, then how, exactly, is she able to control the circus? It’s possible that these unanswered questions are supposed to cultivate a sense of mystery, but in reality it just muddles the entire endeavor.
I’m giving The Night Circus two stars instead of one only because it’s not completely terribly written (well, parts of it are) and because it didn’t manage to infuriate me. Instead, it left me feeling deflated, as it was yet another indication of why YA fiction is usually regarded as a trash genre, a place to shove underwhelming novels that most adults would sneer at. There are notable exceptions, of course, and children’s literature — not to be confused with YA — is flourishing.
I’ve seen all of these problems — generic historical setting (Eragon, A Great and Terrible Beauty), poorly developed characters (Uglies, The City of Ember), stunted dialogue (Percy Jackson, Number the Stars), hollow romance (Stargirl, The Hunger Games), pacing (Jacob Have I Loved, The Dark Hills Divide), and disorganization (Matched, Maximum Ride) — in YA fiction many times before, and I doubt these issues will be resolved anytime soon. All it takes is a small kernel of original thought, which can then be fleshed out with the usual stereotypical suspects until you’ve created a hollow 400-page homage to imitation that, for reasons still unknown to me, sells tens of thousands of copies.
Overall rating: 2/5 stars
The beautiful and artistic photos of this utterly underwhelming book were taken by G.