The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

TITLE: The Night Circus
AUTHOR: Erin Morgenstern
PUBLISHER: Anchor Books (July 2012)
PROCUREMENT: Public library
VERDICT: Highly recommended

“You think, as you walk away from Le Cirque des Rêves and into the creeping dawn, that you felt more awake within the confines of the circus. You are no longer quite certain which side of the fence is the dream.”

You may be wondering why I read a #1 National Bestseller; here at Grab the Lapels I typically only review small press works. However, my county does a reading program called One Book, One Michiana each spring during which community comes together to read the same book. Later, a variety of events take place at different library branches and in the community. This year, there are opportunities to watch movies (The PrestigeThe IllusionistSomething Wicked This Way Comes, etc.), make steampunk jewelry, learn about the history of Tarot cards, discuss trains and railroads, hear lectures about clocks, and more! I’ll be updating with more information that I learn from the events I attend.

The Night Circus is a 512-page paperback book about two men who can do magic–real magic–although the word “magic” is called incorrect throughout the novel. Does the word “magic” sound too childish, too abracadabra? In Morgenstern’s novel, magic is something all around everyone, all the time, but only certain people recognize the power that’s out there and use it. One of these men, Hector Bowen, believes magic is innate, though it can be improved with training. The second, a mysterious gentleman in grey called Alexander, believes magic can be learned. These two schools of thought clash, and so the magicians (for lack of a better word, I suppose) each choose and train a child who will grow to face the other in an epic battle. Hector discovers his daughter Celia when she is about eight and quickly learns she can break and fix things with her mind; this means innate. The man in grey chooses a boy from an orphanage, Marco, who has potential.

And so one of the common complaints about Morgenstern’s novel is that it is too slow. The description on the back of the book blows what could have been a fantastic plot twist; the only way Marco or Celia can win the battle is if the other dies. The two spend years learning magic when a patron decides to create a circus. The circus then becomes the “board” on which Celia and Marco “battle.” No one can interfere with the magicians, and they are supposed to create things in the circus, often in different tents (this circus is sprawling). For the longest time, neither person knows who his/her opponent is. But–and here is where the romance begins to bloom–they can feel the magic in what the other person made…almost like a love letter. Before the characters find out that one of them has to die, they continue to “write” to one another with little sense of urgency. That is, until the meet and fall in love and want to leave the circus.

The Night Circus is an interesting book in that it is slow and rich. I read that the focus is more on descriptions, and that the author had to go back and consider where plot was necessary because she would become so involved in what things looked like. Here is an example of a description of a clock–only a clock–commissioned for the circus:

“The finished clock is resplendent. At first glance it is simply a clock, a rather large black clock with a white face and a silver pendulum. Well crafted, obviously, with intricately carved woodwork edges and a perfectly painted face, but just a clock. But that is before it is wound. Before it begins to tick, the pendulum swinging steadily and evenly. Then, then it becomes something else. The changes are slow. First, the color changes in the face, shifts from white to grey, and then there are clouds that float across it, disappearing when they reach the opposite side. Meanwhile, bits of the body of the clock expand and contract, like pieces of a puzzle. As though the clock is falling apart, slowly and gracefully. All of this takes hours. The face of the clock becomes a darker grey, and then black, with twinkling stars where numbers had been previously. The body of the clock, which has been methodically turning itself inside out and expanding, is now entirely subtle shades of white and grey. And it is not just pieces, it is figures and objects, perfectly carved flowers and planets and tiny books with actual paper pages that turn. There is a silver dragon that curls around part of the now visible clockwork, a tiny princess in a carved tower who paces in distress, awaiting an absent prince. Teapots that pour into teacups and minuscule curls of steam that rise from them as the seconds tick. Wrapped presents open. Small cats chase small dogs. An entire game of chess is played. At the center, where a cuckoo bird would live in a more traditional timepiece, is the juggler. Dress in harlequin style with a grey mask, he juggles shiny silver balls that correspond to each hour. As the clock chimes, another ball joins the rest until at midnight he juggles twelve balls in a complex pattern. After midnight, the clock begins once more to fold in upon itself. The face lightens and the cloud returns. The number of juggled balls decreases until the juggler himself vanishes. By noon it is a clock again, and no longer a dream.”

I understand that I am immersed in this description, to the point that I don’t think about this one paragraph not moving the plot forward. Certainly, this has been a concern for many readers: the speed at which the plot develops. The Night Circus is more like knitting a blanket, and I think many Americans would prefer to go out and buy one, although they would miss out on the process that it takes to complete the craft project. By the time I’ve finished the description, I can picture the device clearly in my mind and feel a sense of wonder at the mystery of such a contraption and how it might exist (or not) in real life. I get the sense that I am missing out on the astonishing things that can exist in the real world of the book and feel a bit disappointed with my own world, which makes me want to get right back into reading The Night Circus.

A second cover. You can peek at the top of the tent through a hole in the main cover pictured above.

As you might expect, this novel has numerous characters because there has to be people to run and perform in the circus. While the list is fairly long, it’s never difficult to keep the characters straight. Morgenstern has this almost magical way of distinguishing each person so that none of them blur together. For me, if there are two elderly men in one novel, I often mix them up as a result of both seeming the same. In The Night Circus, this is not a problem. Their interests and functions are totally different. For instance, there are several young women, but I could tell them apart based on their roles (contortionist, Tarot card reader, scent designers, illusionist) and their personalities (cold but friendly, kind but unseeing, shortsighted but big dreamer, exhausted but passionate). The “bad guys” never seemed overly evil, and the “good guys” didn’t really do much good. That’s one of the things I like about this novel; the characters don’t have to be tropes in order to be memorable, likable, important to the reader.

Some readers might find the end of this novel unsatisfying, but I get the sense that Morgenstern relied on what she had already established, and probably without realizing that she could use some of what she wrote to her advantage until the end. Since clocks are so important, of course timing can be a resolution. The only other criteria is that a person must love the circus, which so many people do. It’s a place of dreams: Le Cirque des Rêves. Without a fireworks conclusion, a certain kind of reader will be disappointed.

The Night Circus is not a book for the speedy, automated, easily-bored, hurry-up type of person. It is not a McDonaldization of the novel. It is slow and sweet. It is from scratch. It is hands-on. It is do-it-yourself. It is moving your chess piece and waiting patiently for an opponent to do something clever. It could be pages of descriptions of patrons waiting for the circus to open, gasping as lights pop on and a sign shines to life. It could be the smell of the spiced cider or the chocolate-covered popcorn. Or, it might be a clock that changes shape and actions as the hours pass by. It could be a garden with flowers and a koi pond that you can only see in your mind yet reach out and touch.


  1. I have this book and haven’t read it but maybe I will based on this review. I’m tired of magical premises in fiction, but this sounds like it has more literary merit and is less formulaic than most. Strangely, I cannot recall who recommended it or why I bought it!

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