Book Review: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

I’ve been thinking here in the Maldives how much I would have enjoyed The Night Circus on the beach. How I would have ripped through it the way a beach book should read. How it would have possibly cost me a sunburn.

You don’t stop and savour and take your time with The Night Circus. You need to keep going. By some standards, this qualifies the book as a winner. And if that’s the only criteria, whether or not it’s compelling enough to make you stay up and push through, certainly The Night Circus meets it and more. But more importantly... does it stay with you?

I definitely want to go to The Night Circus. I want it to be real. I want to become part of a selective, secret club that follows it around. I want to discover new tents and exhibits every time. Morgenstern has imagined an intoxicating and mysterious attraction that still feels tangible enough to be real. This is a great talent. To introduce something so awesomely supernatural that could still be kinda possible...if you find the right combination.

No doubt then, she is a good storyteller. It’s a wonderful skill. For her first novel, she tells a story that is almost addictive, totally captivating.’s also not perfect. Because while the story itself is indeed intriguing, the finer points still need some work. I had a hard time “seeing” the circus. She can “see” the circus, no doubt. After all, she built the circus. But the writer needs to be able to transfer what they’ve built, through description, to the reader, right? It’s like she had all these amazing ideas, and they really are amazing, but they’re coming out so jumbled, there’s no clarity to them on the page. So the details, as intricate and as plentiful as they are, end up being strewn all over the place. That clock for example was a mess in my mind. Several of the sculptures or whatever you want to call them too. No idea about what was happening with the cauldron. And totally lost me at the end. Like, I’ve read it 3 times and I still don’t really understand how exactly the sh-t was saved.  

This is why I’m actually very much looking forward to the film adaptation. The Night Circus has been acquired by Summit Entertainment and will be made into a movie great on the one hand but worrying on the other since that goddamn studio can be so f-cking mickey mouse cheap and here’s one project where you canNOT afford cheap. My point however is that since I have no personal visualisation to the images Morgenstern presents in the story, there’s also no attachment to what certain parts SHOULD look like. I mean, there was a very, very clear map, for instance, for Hogwarts, that could not be re-interpreted. With The Night Circus, that template isn’t there. As such, I want the movie to tell me what everything looks like. Because I mostly I don’t know.

That overwhelming sense of “too much” also applies to the characters. There are so many of them, too many of them, and the plot advances so quickly, they barely have time to anchor themselves before we’re being asked to accept that they’re over it, or not over it, or whatever it is we’re told that they’re feeling. The good news is that there are certain characters I wish I knew more about. The contortionist, for example, and her name escapes me and I’ll come back to this in a second because it’s an important detail; I was more sad for her loss than for anyone else, I cared more about her being alone in the world than whether or not Celia and Marco would make come?  

That, I think, is The Night Circus’s essential problem - when I was done, I didn’t care. Sure, I guess I medium wanted them get together, but I can honestly say I didn’t give a sh-t if they stayed together. Which is why when I closed the book, I pretty much forgot about it completely. You speed through it because you want to know what happens, and as soon as you know what happens, you have no desire to linger and let it simmer in your head, draw out the “personal extras” that should always accompany a great read, live through the various permutations that take shape in revealing its significance to you.

Disappointingly, this didn’t happen for me with The Night Circus. Which is why I can’t remember the contortionist’s name and am not invested enough to even google to look it up. I wonder if I would feel differently if there was more understanding about the battle between the two masters. After all, the entire story is based on their struggle which is never really fully explained. Sure, at the very end there, a few lines are tossed off about how the pupil wanted to overthrow the teacher but by then, it’s too late. The opportunities for tension have passed. Over and over again they f-ck around with people’s lives, playing for superiority, and it’s supposed to be so personal and yet that resentment that exists between them, it’s presented with such detachment, such a lack of engagement, why should we care who wins and who doesn’t? There it is then. I didn’t buy the motivation. The whole story, it hinges on the motivation. And if the motivation isn’t believable, everything else feels hollow too.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t read The Night Circus if you haven’t already because you so totally should and you will have a good time. But I need to get emotional about the books that I want to keep on my shelf. I need to care about characters and worry about what will happen to them and wonder why they make such dumb decisions and celebrate when they find the smart ones. The Night Circus isn’t that kind of book and while not every book has to be that kind of book, I think it wanted to be and couldn’t quite get there.

And you? Do you agree? Disagree? Please let me know. I look forward to your emails.