Book Review: “The Night Circus,” By Erin Morgenstern

One of the strongest elements of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series was the setting. Rowling created a highly detailed and sweeping world that was both magical and scary. In her dazzling debut novel, The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern attempts a similar feat. Like Hogwarts, Le Cirque des Revers (Circus of Dreams) is vivid, whimsical and highly developed. That’s where the similarities end.

Unlike Harry Potter, the stakes in The Night Circus do not involve the fate of the magical world. The stakes are personal as Morgenstern explores issues of love and obligation, competition and collaboration, fantasy and reality, free will and coercion, and the pursuit of one’s dreams.

The story centers on a bet between two illusionists in the late 1800s: Prospero the Enchanter, also known as Hector Bowen, and the mysterious Mr. A.H., also known as Alexander and the man in the gray suit. Prospero puts up his daughter, Celia, against a gifted orphan, Marco Alisdair, handpicked by Mr. A.H. The venue for the competition is a fantastical night circus, designed by theater impresario M. Chandresh Christopher Lefevre (you’ve got to love the names Morgenstern gives her characters).

The two stern taskmasters train their protégés without divulging the rules or the nature of the competition. They don’t even tell their competitor the identity of their adversary. Telling a tale like this is tricky high-wire act for any writer, but Morgenstern’s writing has a seductive quality that cajoles the reader into going along for the ride.

The strength of this story is the highly imaginative and detailed world of the circus. Morgenstern evokes all of the senses in her description of setting, making the circus come alive in the reader’s mind.

Eventually, Celia and Marco catch on to the game. They fall in love and, instead of competing, they decide to collaborate. But they must figure out a way to end the game without triggering a catastrophe.

I’m a fan of ambiguous endings because real life is that way. Rarely do people live happily ever after. However, this ending felt a little too ambiguous. It was as though Morgenstern wrote herself into a corner and couldn’t bear to end the story by making a more painful choice. That’s as much as I can say without spoiling the ending.

My only other criticism is that Morgenstern spends much more time describing every detail of the setting than she devotes to character development. In particular, I would have liked to have seen more about how Celia and Marco fell in love. It seemed to happen quickly without a lot of contact between the two rivals.

Still, these are minor flaws. I found The Night Circus to be an unusual and enjoyable novel.

How important is the setting to your novel?

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Book Review: “The Night Circus,” By Erin Morgenstern

  1. Good question.

    The setting of my current novel is my hometown of Buffalo, NY, in the time of my own life. I’d say it’s important because it couches the characters’ states of mind, and the details of their social development, accurately. It’s a real time and place, with its own reference points that only people who have lived there– here– will know completely. But its reality comes through, adding flavor and authenticity to the whole; or so my non-Buffalonian beta-reader tells me. And the reality of my early life is very different from that of children born in the last 20 years. I imagine it will be half time travel, half unbelievable to them. Life without computers?
    In truth, I could have set the story in many a mid-size city or a small town and made it work. Even here, I’ve had plenty of research to do to verify details outside my own experience. I like the richness, the depth that came almost too easily as I wrote. But different depths were possible.

    • Mari,
      Thanks for your comments on setting. I’d love to read your novel. I believe the more accurate and real a setting is, the more it will draw the reader into the story. Setting is quite frankly one of my weaknesses as a writer. I don’t pay enough attention to it. That’s why I loved Morgenstern’s novel. She created a fantastic and vivid setting. Of course, a key aspect of setting is that it supports the tone and theme of the story as well. Thanks again and good luck with your work in progress.

      Chris

  2. Hugh Centerville

    I thoroughly disliked the the book, finding the same faults in it as you did, although for me the faults were more serious than for you. I had read some reviews and anticipated a really good read, I love setting as much or more than any other aspect of fiction, but the setting here was like cake, it’s delicious, but how much can you eat before you get sick? I also found myself thinking, from early on, what exactly is the point here? Where are we going? Nowhere, it seems, based on your review, and I’m not sorry I didn’t finish the book, which is very unusual for me, I tend to stay with a book until the end, unless I can’t.

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