Review: The Night Circus (Common Problems with YA Fiction)

I really ought to stop reading books I strongly suspect I won’t enjoy. But Erin Morgenstern’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.

The Night Circus - cover page

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:

The Night Circus - cover

#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.

The Night Circus - author page

#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

Notes 2 - The Night Circus

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.

Celia:

[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)

Marco:

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’ve tried,’ Marco says, cupping her face in his hands. ‘I have tried to let you go and I cannot. I cannot stop thinking of you. I cannot stop dreaming about you. Do you not feel the same for me?

‘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.

DSC_4275

#4: Pacing 

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.

Notes 3 - The Night Circus

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. 

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14 thoughts on “Review: The Night Circus (Common Problems with YA Fiction)

  1. Ok, I don’t disagree with you here. I thought it was a great idea that wasn’t perfectly executed. However, I did finish it (which will not do when a book really exasperates me) and I can’t say I didn’t enjoy parts of it. I didn’t notice until you pointed it out, but it did feel very impersonal at times. Good review. Its not terrible, but could have been done better.

  2. I found sections slow, but I saw the book as a cross genre piece – I wonder if there was publisher pressure to push it into a niche – young adult fantasy romance. The cover has a Twilighty feel to it, but that is not the intended audience or style of the core tale.

    This book belongs to Neil Gaiman country and Lord Dunsany’s faerie realms, ‘ beyond the fields we know”. As such, it should be slower, shorter. dreamy, allegorical as is fitting symbolic fable, not realistic and full of highly detailed realistic characters & dialogue. It is a world where magic has a price and a consequence. this is where hapless individuals are caught in the weave and even the weavers are potential victims. Here real magic masquerades as stage magic, the tents are literally bigger on the inside than the outside.

    The author had world & narrative to convey that has been hijacked by the tropes of young adult fantasy romance. Were my expectations as reader fully met, no. Was I looking for a fantasy romance, young adult or otherwise, most definitely not – I would in most likelihood stayed away from it if it was. I had read positive reviews that did not emphasize that aspect of the novel and I think reading it from that perspective gave me more appreciation of the composition’s narrative flow & world building. This book is not for everyone and in some ways a marketing disaster.

    Hopefully the writer will not be turned off or misdirected by the treatment of the novel by the publisher & the reading audience. There is great potential for this fabulist to develop into an accomplished writer of magic realism.

    Thought provoking review. Many thanks. 🙂

  3. I had a sort of languid interest in reading this (by which I mean, I thought it might be interesting and felt like I ought to read it, but kept putting it off for things that grabbed me more), but you (and the excerpts you pulled from it) have more or less dissuaded me. #1 is a particular pet peeve of mine, if only because I’m frequently lured into reading something hoping for some sort of truly insightful homage to/pastiche of 19th-century literature, only to find that weird fetishization of the time period. It’s beyond annoying if you know anything about the era, but it also makes me vaguely uncomfortable–it feels a little like some sort of Orientalism across time rather than space. And it’s a trend I’ve been thinking about a lot lately; I recently started watching Penny Dreadful (which also has issues with real Orientalism), and that’s one of the main complaints I have with it. It’s not that I expect total historical accuracy from something about vampires and demons, but they could at least make a token effort.

    1. Well, at least if you do still end up reading this, then your expectations will be much lower – ha! I like the way you describe “Orientalism across time rather than space,” as I feel like I see it all of the time. So many people are fond of reminiscing about the 1950s and 1960s, despite all of the social upheaval and racial tensions of those decades. It wasn’t all bouffants and polka-dot dresses. That’s a simplification of what’s happening, of course. I think that despite its faults, Woody Allen’s film ‘Midnight in Paris’ does a pretty good job of demonstrating the purposelessness of nostalgia for another era. I hadn’t heard of Penny Dreadful, but a quick glance at the promotional poster featuring Eva Green and I can see what you’re talking about…

  4. As long as we agree that there is some really good YA fiction out there, I’m fine accepting criticism of the genre more generally. If anyone is still interested in The Night Circus after this, at Bookends & Beginnings in Evanston we have an almost new hardcover copy for a mere $12, along with many good new YA books–like Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer.

    1. Of course you are right — there is some EXCELLENT YA fiction out there, and IBBY, as usual, does a wonderful job of identifying it (see my older post on Jayne Bauling’s “Dreaming of Light.”) It’s really the massively popular series that I take issue with (The Hunger Games is an exception, because I do think its anti-war message is an important, though overlooked, one). I’m sure you have some excellent YA literature in stock at Bookends & Beginnings — you should give me some ideas of what to read next!!

  5. Your first paragraph is a marvelous description of YA fiction. I do think there are some gems to be had, but you are spot on. I won’t be reading this one!

    1. Honestly, I can only think of a handful of quality YA books: The Harry Potter series (though looking back I can see how it wasn’t as progressive as I thought), The Hunger Games series (for the ultimate message, not necessarily the writing itself), the Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry series, To Kill a Mockingbird (though many would probably consider this an adult novel), Walk Two Moons, and the Chronicles of Narnia. I also really enjoyed The Goose Girl, Mandy, and Ella Enchanted growing up, but I’m not sure if they would stand up to scrutiny now! In fact, I’ve been meaning to do a post about my favorite books as a child/teen, and this is a good reminder. Many thanks for commenting, Emily. I hope your holiday season is going well!

  6. I received “Mrs. Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” as a gift and didn’t realize it was YA until much later. I enjoyed it and its (first) sequel even though I can see some of the drawbacks of this genre you describe. With Peregrine the device of building a narrative around strange vintage photographs trumps my minor misgivings. I just hope it doesn’t turn out to be an endless series of books (another YA drawback). A trilogy is fine but after that I get off the bus. Anyway, great review and photos.

    1. Ah, yes, I’ve heard that title mentioned several times, and I assumed it wasn’t much good! I’m glad to hear you discovered it contained some redeeming qualities, though. I don’t mean to completely trash YA as a genre; it has its gems, it just seems like there are proportionally fewer of them… As for endless series, I agree with you completely. It’s the same reason why so many TV shows lose momentum after 5 seasons or so! Better to cut it off while it’s still good (e.g., The Wire).

      Glad you liked the photos – I shall pass on your compliments to the photographer. Everything is lit by the multicolored lights on our little Christmas tree. You can see some of the pine needles if you look closely!

  7. Boy, I’m with you on this one, although I didn’t realize it was supposed to be YA fiction. I was taken aback because I read it right when it was being talked about so enthusiastically, but I didn’t enjoy it at all. I especially thought that the descriptions of the marvelous acts, which were supposed to be so imaginative, sounded silly.

    1. Yes! All of those marvelous acts were pretty standard examples of magic. All Celia ever did was make ravens appear and disappear, set chairs on fire, and move stuff around. Very typical for a stage “magician.” And if the most special thing about the circus was its color scheme, well, then, that’s not saying much. All the living statue nonsense was very overdone. I’m not sure why everyone has been so eager to embrace this novel!

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