Friday, March 23, 2012

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Do you ever feel the need to make a detailed disclaimer before spouting an opinion?  Or is that just my middle-child-pacifist sneaking up on me again?  Let's just get this over with:

  - I'm not a fan of the circus. Clowns? Side shows? Scary. A pretty circus? It's just hiding the scary.

  - Fantasy settings & suspension of disbelief? Difficult for me. They aren't even pretending to be real, so why should I care?

  - Atmospheric and descriptive are all well and good...if it's a sideline to a rocking plot or amazing character development.  Otherwise? Yawn.

  - And Now We Must Speak of HYPE.  Typically, I turn away from things that are All The Rage (be it a book or something else entirely) but I knew I'd be reading this sooner or later when I found out that it was an Indiespensable selection.  Then this massively publicized book made the Indie Lit Awards short list (along with four minimally hyped books) and I can tell you that it made for an interesting comparison.  The hype ended up affecting me much less than my other reservations.  Contrary to my seemingly negative observations, I actually enjoyed this book - certainly more than I thought I would.

You all know the premise (or you won't have to look far to find it) so the question is What Did I Think?

Right off the bat it was apparent that there had been more money put into the production of this book.  The book itself was gorgeous, with the magical black and white theme carried throughout the design of the pages.  My copy had a black velvet[ish] slipcase, which further enhanced the richness of the production.  This sense went farther than the art design and typesetting - when compared to the other books on the short list, the writing glowed with the polished shine that evokes hard work and a dedicated editing process rather than raw talent.

Don't get me wrong - the descriptions are beautiful.  Morgenstern has an imagination, no doubt about it, but that really is where her talent lies.  There wasn't enough plot to keep me invested, and the main characters don't have a lot of depth.  There came a point in the book where I almost wanted to skip over the descriptions because I wanted to get on to something meatier.

In the end, when comparing it to the other short list books, this book fell in the middle for me.  It was more polished and enjoyable than Cross Currents and The Last Time I Saw Paris (reviewed here) but lacking the depth in characters and themes that Silver Sparrow and Dance Lessons had.  I'd recommend The Night Circus to readers attracted to the magical circus setting as well as those in the mood to get their imaginations spinning.
     The ground beneath her feet shifts, suddenly unsteady, but Marco puts a hand on her waist to keep her upright.
     When she opens her eyes, they are standing on the quarterdeck of a ship in the middle of the ocean.
     Only the ship is made of books, its sails thousands of overlapping pages, and the sea it floats upon is dark black ink.
The world of The Night Circus remains mysterious and magical from the beginning of the book to the end.  It isn't a world with well-defined rules.  Like the characters, we never find out exactly how things work or why.  This ties in with the high level of imagination and creativity, but made for a somewhat detached reading experience.  It is a showcase of creativity: magical, mysterious, elusive, atmospheric.

(By the way...I don't recommend reading this book on an e-reader, simply because I had to look back at previous chapter headings all the time - what a pain on an e-reader!  The reason it was necessary to flip around was the chapter heading details, which indicate time and location.  Especially in the beginning, when I was still trying to figure out who everyone was and where/when they were, it was frustrating.  This book convinced me that any information at the beginning of a chapter should enhance the text, not take the place of it.)


  1. Interesting about the e-reading. I just read some thoughts on this one yesterday where the person listened on audio but had to check out a copy from the library because she constantly felt lost.

    You might be the first person I've seen in the middle--everyone else seems to LOOOOOOOOVE this one or dislike it. I own a copy so will get to it eventually but hearing about flat characters makes me leery.

  2. I think farmlanebooks also felt the same, good but not enough plot or character development. Unfortunately this means that its unlikely pick it up although I do always glance at the rather pretty cover whenever Im in a bookstore

  3. Great review :)

    I was surprised to see this one shortlisted for the Indie Lit Award, and to see it on the Orange Prize long-list too. I'll be reading it in the next month and I'll try to ignore the hype monster as I do so!

  4. I confess, I loved the Night Circus, and I loved it precisely for its imagination and it ability to let me believe in magic, if only while I dwelt in its pages. Totally concur about the writing and characters being less than stellar. Although...I think she's got some great secondary characters, like the twins.

  5. I have been hearing hype about this one for months. Thank you for the frank review. While I still probably read it at some point, the hype bubble has sprung a leak and will help adjust my expectations.

    And thank you for spotlighting the Indie Lit Award. I'm completely enthralled by the Tournament of Books at the moment and likely would have missed this award had you not been talking about it.

  6. Trish, I would have been toast if I'd tried to listen to it instead of read it. There were a few characters in the beginning that I had a hard time remembering, and the time/place jumps weren't easily decipherable for me. I think you'd like it...if you were able to save it for a time when you're up for soaking in some atmospheric imagination.

    Jessica, it really is a very beautiful book. The art design and the descriptions throughout, it's all very lush. I keep trying to think of what combination of books & movies it reminds me of, but no luck yet. I do think that it would make an incredible film.

    Sam, I was really surprised by the short list. I thought for sure we'd see State of Wonder before Night Circus, but perhaps that's a side effect of the publicity? I hope you enjoy it--I'm looking forward to hearing what you think!

    Emily, I like that you loved it. :) Actually, part of the short-list-discussion about this book was about the fact that some people are more inspired by having some mystery, and some people need details to be sold & inspired. I guess it's one of those personal things. You're right--there were some fabulous secondary characters in the book! I loved the twins, and the contortionist (what was her name?) was a whole story waiting to be told.

    Jessica, I kind of like the idea of being the one to spring a leak in the hype bubble. :) I'm following the TOB for the first time this year (where has it been all my life?) so I can completely understand the enthrallment. I'm already dreaming of reading the entire list for next year so I can form my own opinions! I do love that the Indie Lit Awards ties all the book bloggers together somewhat--it's been a great experience.

  7. I've got an alternate for you. Rain Village by Carolyn Turgeon. It has just enough circus to qualify as a circus book but so much more! I know you have it on your Nook because it's part of that 25 books for 25 cents deal that we both jumped at!

  8. I was also kind of unimpressed by The Night Circus, even though I wanted very much to be impressed. Everyone else was impressed. But I think you're right that though the imagination is there, the plot and character development really aren't.

  9. Sounds like a really good read. I bought a copy a few months ago, but lent it out before I got round to reading it. The black-edged pages piqued my interest and, after reading your review, I'm definitely intrigued to read this now!


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