Review: The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern

The Night Circus
by Erin Morgenstern
Doubleday, 2011
387 pgs
The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it, no paper notices on downtown posts and billboards, no mentions or advertisements in local newspapers. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not.

This is the beginning of the magic that is Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus (Doubleday, 2011). Called Le Cirque des Rêves (the circus of dreams), the physical circus with its circular tents, black and white palate, and dusk til dawn hours, is literally the stuff of dreams--made of, inspired by, and existing sometimes only in dreams.

The story is fantastical but, in the end, grounded in a kind of macabre reality where the unknown is just that - it resides in our minds untapped and therefore, while we possess it, we cannot have it and we cannot know it. And that's the quality of Morgenstern's writing that's actually quite beautiful and which make the novel worth reading--the illusions, the fantasies, you never knew you wanted them until Morgenstern put them on paper and caused you to know them.

This is a circus without the clowns or the bearded lady, and without a ringmaster (at least, not a ringmaster in name; there's a pun in there--I'll let you read the book and figure it out). Even drained of the usual circus colors, this world is an extremely vibrant and visual one. Morgenstern's descriptions are sometimes lengthy to the point of excess, but the vision is extremely clear--the stuff of dreams that might make for an excellent film adaptation in the right hands.¹

But the circus, while the primary focus of the novel, is not where the story begins. It is an effect, a result, of a wager made some years prior by a pair of proud and rather cowardly magicians who lay bets on whose apprentice will succeed over the other in a magical challenge. The circus is merely created to be the venue for that challenge. We're not really given a clear view of the point of this competition until the very end and, by then, no one cares.

Up until that point, it's kind of a disappointment. Not the novel, mind you, but the challenge itself. You hear the words challenge and competition and maybe you think Goblet of Fire. Not so. Especially when the apprentice-competitors fall inexplicably in love with one another (their magic magnetically attracts them to one another and we're meant to believe that it's this grand romance that no man may put asunder). It'd be like if Harry fell in love with Cedric. It'd be pretty lame.² The competition would be inhibited by the sappy love story as it is here; it ends up being less of a challenge and more of a flirtation as they build their magical creations for one another as opposed to against one another.

The supernatural gifts of those involved help give the characters depth, but the entire thing seems built on a skeletal model of Shakespearean poetry. And as successful as she is with her visual descriptions and the beautifully crafted plot, Morgenstern seems to miss the mark by trying to combine something that has so much potential like the circus itself with The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet.³

And I'm not saying that just because it does in fact involve star-crossed lovers, nor because Romeo & Juliet is such a great go-to. The parallels with Shakespeare are blatant and the direct relationship to Romeo & Juliet is clear. I will not wholly spoil it for you but, going the way things have gone, I think you can guess where it all ends up. (Spoilers are in the footnotes).⁴


¹ Please, for the love of all that is holy, not Tim Burton.

² Then again, there is that bit in Goblet of Fire when Cedric gives Harry the clue about the egg, and then that time that Harry saves Cedric from the landscape in the labyrinth--oops!

³ "I just reread Romeo & Juliet and you know the first thing I realized is that, that’s not even the title. It’s called the Tragedy of Romeo & Juliet. They die. She’s this young girl, she’s younger than me and she dies. Look, I think the reason why people think that it’s such a romantic play is because they don’t know what it’s like to be put in that position. But when your life and other peoples’ lives are put at risk, there isn’t anything romantic about it." - who saw a Roswell quote popping up in this review? Not me. But there it is. And it's pertinent.

⁴ SPOILERS: Celia's father is known onstage as "Prospero the Enchanter", Marco papers his models of the circus with Shakespearean texts, Celia and Marco have "fathers" who have conflict with one another and instruct their children/pupils to not get involved with the other, Marco is enamored with Isobel (a Rosaline) and tosses her for love of Celia, the two lovers meet (or, you know, make out for the first time) at a ball/dance/shindig, they both consult with Mr. Barris (a Friar Lawrence) who enables their creations, Celia is present with the circus while Marco is essentially in exile in London, Marco is present and maybe even instrumental in the death of Celia's good friend Thiessen (a Tybalt) and the star-crossed lovers "die" together, though they don't quite die as much as...become a lot like Vincent Schiavelli's character in Ghost, roaming the subway and figuring out how to move objects with his invisible self. Okay maybe not exactly like that, but it's pretty close.


  1. I am reading this right now and really enjoying it. I despair of writing a review half as enchanting as yours - you have captured the essence of this very different novel.

    Marlene Detierro (Alaska Fishing Lodges)


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