Ryan loves to read and review literature. He writes book reviews in his spare time.
You really do want to like The Night Circus. It has so many good going for it—mystery, intrigue, magic, the search to uncover what an unknown competition with deadly results really is, strange and bizarre characters with ulterior motives that one is constantly anticipating finding out, a backdrop of a carnival and all of its splendid attractions—it's true candy for the imagination.
At the beginning, all of this is enough to string the reader along in fascination, making them turn the pages as they careen along on an unstoppable adventure, searching for answers and delighting in the grandeur and the genius of the circus. Then, somewhere in the middle of the book, the pages cease to turn as fast, and it slowly begins to drag, as you keep yourself moving out of inertia and the hope of final reward at the end with the revelation of all of the mysteries that had been kept in the dark from you before: the book becomes a duty, rather than a pleasure.
The Night Circus is centered around a love story between two characters—Marco and Celia. Well, that's what it formally says; the reality is closer to that of a toddler playing kissy-kissy with two of their dolls, telling us enthusiastically about how much they love each other. The big problem at the heart of the book is that there isn't an organic storyline. There is the author, Erin Morgenstern, and her flat decisions about how things should be. She decided that Celia and Marco would fall in love, and so they do—there's no real sense of romance or reason for why they fall in love aside from the all-consuming passionate spark that we are told again and again exists.
Marco and Celia are in similar situations perhaps, but their romance has the feeling of something forced, without any actual attraction on the part of the characters or reason why they would be in love. Their entire relationship feels forced and unnatural, or at the very least, grey, since there is no real feeling of development of love for each other.
Instead, it just becomes corny. Marco uses his powers of conviction and persuasion to create mental vistas for Celia in conversations where they broach the subject of loving each other, but it all feels like a game, and what sticks in one's mind is nothing of their talk or of the feelings they expressed, but rather of Marco and his illusions that formed the backdrop.
Perhaps it is a question of style. Maybe Celia and Marco really are doing their best to try to express their love, and they simply can't because the other critical failing of the book is that it is terribly hackneyed and stereotypical. Morgenstern seems to have a vague idea of what the Victorian Era looked like, with unfailing courtesy, every sentence spoken like something out of a poetry book, perfect elegance, and constant chivalry. Unerringly, she sticks to this throughout, and the characters never deign to talk informally or inject any emotion or passion into their voices. They are always cursed to speak in the formal lexicon that Morgenstern has given to them. I tend to speak too formally as well, but even I have my flashes of casual conversation. Morgenstern's characters are more like automatons than people in their style of speaking.
The "duel" between the two characters is another example of the author's overly-heavy hand at work. Celia and Marco discover that the duel is nothing of the sort but actually an endurance battle to determine who can survive the longest. If one finds out that one is in an endurance battle, then why choose to keep exerting oneself so much?
If one has been hoodwinked into believing that a competition about holding your breath is based upon whoever can hold one's breath the longest, but it is actually just about surviving, and the entire "holding your breath" part is actually just optional . . . well then just go to the surface! There's no reason to keep up such exertion on the circus. Celia and Marco didn't have to choose a dramatic mutual lover's suicide at the end when they could have simply chosen to stop playing the game.
It seems like one of those books that is like Twilight, which I never read but have a vague understanding of and know the audience—a book for heartthrobs who want to imagine themselves with their perfect love story and as a perfect character with deep magical powers and a devoted consort and don't care at all about how the author gives that to them.
Not everything is bad about The Night Circus. The beginning of the novel is quite enjoyable. It is fun to discover the circus and the world that the characters are set in, and the end starts the machinery moving again, getting away from the only focus of the author being on the stifling "romance" between her two principal characters.
Morgenstern creates some excellent examples of magic and ingenuity that are truly beautiful to imagine—circus exhibits based upon clouds, magical clocks, even the foods of the circus. It is just a shame that as good as she is at blowing life into her circus, she can't achieve the same with her characters.
© 2020 Ryan C Thomas