Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus is one of the most beautiful books I’ve read. More than anything else, I was struck by the elegance of the prose and the setting. While the characters are a bit sketchy, you sink into the atmosphere of the book like a warm bath. If nothing else, I would recommend the book for the sheer wonder of it.
While the book centers on the actions of Celia and Marco, the plot is really put into motion by a pair of cold-blooded magicians: Hector and Alexander. Hector pushes at the boundaries of magic and believes that innate ability is the key to greatness. Alexander believes that it can be taught. And for centuries, they have been pitting their students against each other to fight it out to the death. Celia and Marco are the latest combatants, and their arena is the Cirque des Rêves. But in spite of the efforts of their teachers, Celia and Marco fall in love and start trying to find a way around the parameters of the contest. Further complicating matters is the Circus itself. The Circus is like the best parts of every circus put together, with all the bad parts–the animal cruelty, the stink, etc.–taken out. Instead, each visit to the circus is like stepping safely into a fairy tale. There’s the Ice Garden, the illusions that are really real, the Cloud Maze, the acrobats that work without nets, the Wishing Tree. After a while, the Circus develops a corps of followers that travel everywhere the circus goes. The competition between Celia and Marco is what drives the magic of the circus. For every one of Celia’s creations, Marco creates something new. The circus is their love letter to each other, and it’s a lot of fun to watch it all play out and see what they will come up with next.
Celia and Marco’s story skips forward through time, from the 1870s to the early 1900s. Along side it, we get Bailey and Poppet’s story. Poppet and her twin were born on the circus’s opening night. Bailey is a local kid who snuck into the circus on a dare and fell in love with it, and with Poppet. It’s hard to see how this tread will tie into the main one, but Morgenstern wraps them together into a fairly spectacular and very satisfying ending. The reader also gets pulled in, with short second-person vignettes that highlight different attractions. Normally, second-person bugs the hell out of me, but worked for this book.
The setting really is the best thing about this book. But I have to agree with Stacey d’Erasmo’s review in the New York Times about the characters. It’s as though Morgenstern has spent so much creative capital on the setting that there wasn’t much left for character motivations or even personalities. Morgenstern tells you the characters are in love with each other, but doesn’t show why they’re in love with each other. The circus really is the best part of the book and by the end, I was more worried about its future than the future of the characters. Granted, this is a debut novel. It shows so much promise that I’m very interested to see what Morgenstern comes up with next.