The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

I don’t usually pay much attention to hype, but I found I couldn’t ignore The Night Circus any longer. Judging by the number of glowing reviews this book has attracted, it has lived up to the hype for most people, but for me, although I did like it – loved it at times – I wasn’t quite as swept away by it as I had hoped to be. I’ll start by telling you what I loved about it and will then try to explain why not everything worked for me.

The Night Circus tells the story of Celia and Marco, two young magicians who have been selected by their mentors to take part in a very special contest. The rules of the competition are shrouded in mystery and even the two illusionists themselves aren’t sure what they have to do to win. And the venue for this magical battle? Le Cirque des Rêves, or the Circus of Dreams, one of the strongest, most vivid fictional worlds I’ve ever come across in a novel.

“The circus arrives without warning”, as we are told in the opening line of the novel. As it moves from town to town, it appears overnight and is “simply there, when yesterday it was not”. It really sounds amazing, more like a theme park than a traditional circus, and all the descriptions made me feel sorry that it doesn’t really exist! I know I’m not the only person who will have read this book wishing that they could visit the circus too and spend the night wandering from tent to tent, marvelling at all the spectacular attractions and performances. The setting is complemented with an authentic circus atmosphere complete with the smells of bonfire smoke and caramel, the taste of mulled cider, and a special black and white colour scheme. So much thought has gone into making the setting come to life, right down to the tiniest detail. What a great imagination Erin Morgenstern must have!

As it grows in popularity, the circus attracts a large group of followers who form a kind of fan club, calling themselves ‘rêveurs’. As we read the book we are encouraged to become rêveurs ourselves via a number of special chapters written in the second person, designed to make the reader feel they are actually there, inside the circus. I thought this aspect of the book was very effective and possibly the best use of second person narrative I’ve seen.

For me though, this book was all about the tone, the atmosphere and the descriptions of the circus, and there wasn’t much else beyond that. Outside the world of the circus there was no sense of time or place: the book is set in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but it didn’t feel that way to me and I didn’t really notice anything to set the book in its time period. Maybe it was kept deliberately timeless – I don’t know, but I thought this was slightly disappointing as I do love a Victorian/turn of the century setting. The story develops slowly (sometimes too slowly for me), keeping the reader wondering about the true nature of the contest and what the outcome will be, but when I reached the end of the book I still wasn’t completely sure exactly what the point of the contest had been. Too many of my questions were left unanswered.

The biggest problem I had with this book, though, was the characters. When I think about my favourite books, the ones that I really loved and have kept on my shelves to read over and over again, they are the ones with strong characters, characters I can form an emotional connection with, who I can care about and understand. And that’s why, although I did like The Night Circus, I couldn’t love it. I didn’t think there was enough depth to the characters and even Celia and Marco never felt like real, fully developed people to me. Rather than being able to get inside their heads I felt I was watching them from a distance, though maybe the fact that most of the book was written in the third person present tense contributed to this. I did still enjoy this book and loved that wonderful circus setting, but if only the characters had been stronger it might have been one of my books of the year.

14 thoughts on “The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

  1. Teresa says:

    I can understand why it fell short for you Helen on the character front. I felt the circus was the leading character and it worked for me. It will be interesting to see what Ms Morgenstern comes up with next.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, I think you’re right that the leading character was the circus! And although I had a few problems with this book, I’m looking forward to her next one too.

  2. Nymeth says:

    This sounds charming in many ways, but as a character-oriented reader I wonder if I could ever call it a favourite too. It sounds like something I’ll enjoy but not love.

    • Helen says:

      I’d be interested to see your thoughts on it if you get round to reading it. I thought the characters were very wooden and undeveloped, but I’ve seen other people say the exact opposite.

  3. Deb Atwood says:

    I enjoyed your post and hold similar views about the importance of identifying with characters, even seriously flawed ones. I just started reading The Night Circus, so I will keep your thoughts in mind. From the little I’ve read so far, I think Morgenstern uses Hemingway’s camera viewpoint, so that as readers we need to interpret more with the author telling us less.

    These days, I do find more and more novels written in present tense, and I am growing weary of this technique. I think the authors imagine it creates a sense of immediacy, but usually it just pulls me out of the story from time to time.

    • Helen says:

      I hope you enjoy The Night Circus more than I did, Deb. I often have a problem with books written in the present tense, particularly third person present tense. In some cases it can be effective, but like you, I usually find that it pulls me out of the story.

  4. Anbolyn says:

    I so agree with you, Helen! I really liked the world that Morgenstern weaved and think she did a brilliant job in describing the circus and its attractions. However, the character and plot development was very much lacking. I did enjoy it, but it did fall flat for me and the ending was kind of blah.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, I thought the ending was disappointing. After such a promising start, it just felt as if the plot wasn’t really going anywhere and it all fell flat for me too.

  5. Aarti says:

    YES, YES, YES. I completely agree with you! I had no idea what the point of the circus was, or why it was so crucial that someone be “tied” to it, or why Celia was having so much trouble being “tied” to it and needed to leave in some manner. It made no sense to me! And then, the characters themselves had very little real personality, and just too much pizazz. I didn’t buy the love story, and I didn’t love the story.

    • Helen says:

      No, it was never really explained why someone had to be tied to the circus. There were a lot of other things in the book that didn’t make much sense to me either. I was hoping everything might become clear by the end of the book, but unfortunately not.

  6. Anna (Diary of an Eccentric) says:

    I really loved this book, but I agree that the characters were not well developed, and it was difficult to connect with them. I think the real main character was the circus itself, and the writing was just so beautiful and vivid that I didn’t mind not connecting with the characters as much as I would have with another novel.

  7. Carmen says:

    I loved TNC, loved with capital letters, but I’m crazy about circuses in general. The duel was a battle of egos, and everyone involved was captive and doomed. Therefore, the only possible solution was to end it the way it did.

    • Helen says:

      I’m glad you loved this book more than I did. I really liked the atmosphere and the descriptions of the circus, but I just didn’t manage to connect with the characters.

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