The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (Audio)

The Night Circus was one of those books that I always wanted to read but just never got around to reading. I have been listening to audio books lately, however, and so this has added some space to my TBR pile. Looking for some interesting listening for the car at the local library I stumbled on the PlayAway version and decided to check it out.

For those of you who having been living in a cave (I kid, I kid), here is the publisher’s description:

The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is calledLe Cirque des Rêves, and it is only open at night.

But behind the scenes, a fierce competition is underway—a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood expressly for this purpose by their mercurial instructors. Unbeknownst to them, this is a game in which only one can be left standing, and the circus is but the stage for a remarkable battle of imagination and will. Despite themselves, however, Celia and Marco tumble headfirst into love—a deep, magical love that makes the lights flicker and the room grow warm whenever they so much as brush hands.

True love or not, the game must play out, and the fates of everyone involved, from the cast of extraordinary circus per­formers to the patrons, hang in the balance, suspended as precariously as the daring acrobats overhead.

I have to admit up front, listening rather than reading it was a different experience (different from the mostly non-fiction I have been listening to), but I thoroughly enjoyed this elegant and engaging fantasy. Full of sparkling details, exotic and evocative characters, suspense, romance and imagination it really is an amazing debut. I think I may have to actually “read” the book to get a fuller appreciation for it.

Morgenstern builds her world slowly and at first you might be tempted to ask “Where is all this going and what does it mean?” But the details are worth reading even as the world begins to come together.  And even as you know in some important ways what will happen you are carried along increasingly pulled into how it will happen and what the ramifications will be for these future events.  And just as you begin to get a sense of understanding all of the intertwining threads Morgenstern begins to pull at these threads and reveal more in the unraveling.

And there is a sense that the details are more important than the larger picture. If you are looking for intellectual or philosophical depth or coherence I am not sure you will find it. Instead, it works best if you can lose yourself in the details; the characters and settings that make up the circus and it environs.

Ron Charles at the Washington Post:

If this novel is just cotton candy, it’s cotton candy spun from strands of edible silver. The author mingles a sense of adolescent delight with a mature chilliness that reflects the circus’s stunning black-and-white decor, and the abiding potential for violence gives the plot a subtle charge.

It is a romance in the old fashioned sense, although it is hard to categorize: historical fiction, fantasy, romance?  Of course, all of the above is the obvious answer but your views on and toward those categories, and the expectations they bring, will play a big role in your reaction to the book.

I am not a reader of romance novels for the most part, but enjoyed this story as I felt it didn’t overdo the romantic element to the detriment of others. I also liked the way the relationship between Celia and Marco developed and interacted with the other characters.

But again, I have to say that listening to it might be very different from reading it.  Clair Messud’s review in the Guardian gets at why:

The Night Circus is a sprawling historical novel about magic and the circus. Highly whimsical, it is a narrative so willfully contrived that contrivance is its raison d’être. It is intensely visual, so much so that what remains in its wake are almost exclusively images – more so than plot, or character, or even the prose itself. Morgenstern paints precise, evocative and visually lush scenes within the tents of her fictional circus. Reading the novel is, in this respect, more like watching a film in the making – not an ordinary film, however, but an imaginative collaboration between writer and reader.

All of that came through to me as I listened and I was drawn in and captivated by it; I wanted to find ways to get back to that world and the audio narration accomplished that.  Who knows if reading it would have worked in quite the same way.

Clearly, it didn’t for Stacey D’Erasmo.  After a long introduction discussion glamour, she has this to say:

For the rest of us, glamour is a sweaty struggle, rife with pricked thumbs, bulges and gaffes. This is why it is a risky business indeed to devote nearly 400 pages to a confection called le Cirque des Rêves, a circus that occurs at night (as opposed to what other sort of circus, by the way?) and is famous, apparently, for doing wild, magical, life-changing, impossible things. Like a magician, the writer must pull the rabbit from the hat, cut the lady in half, make the elephant disappear and so on. We long to be fooled. In “The Night Circus,” her debut novel, Erin Morgenstern works hard to create just such a sense of magic, but there finally seems to be something too sensible about her sensibility to pull off the trick. The novel is — and it’s an odd thing to say about a work of fiction — just too real to be believed. True magic is dangerous, and there is little of that sort of propulsive danger in these pages; where it does occur is surprising, and oddly marginalized.

I think this get’s back to the expectations game. D’Erasmo has a particular conception of glamour and fantasy and magic and The Night Circus didn’t match it.  She sought an edge and danger but found detail and surrealism and whimsy even in the darkness. She couldn’t lose herself in that world and so the illusion failed.

I think Charles and Messud are more on track.  In fact, I think Messud has the perfect riposte to D’Erasmo:

Above all, the novel is a genuine pleasure to read. Like any successful illusion, it could be carefully unravelled; but surely, as rare as it is, it should simply be enjoyed.

I agree and urge you to do the same if you haven’t already picked up this gem.


Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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