I feel like it’s a lot harder to read a book you think you should like more that you do than a bad book you went into with low expectations. The Night Circus is definitely a book I went into hoping I would love, and unfortunately one I came out of a lot more disappointed than if I hadn’t had those expectations to begin with because I didn’t love it. I didn’t hate it and I felt it had decent potential, but at the same time I also saw some pretty crucial flaws in it and I think its popularity exacerbated those flaws and made them all the more irritating to me. After all this was a hugely popular book, and not just with the kind of audience that I might expect to love books that maybe aren’t quite my thing (*cough* every YA bestseller *cough*). Nope this book was lauded by people whose opinions I thought generally matched my own so I went in with the impression that The Night Circus was supposed to be a Great Book. Unfortunately, I didn’t find it to be one, and as I was reading it I became more and more baffled as to why everyone who given it glowing reviews couldn’t see the problems I saw in it. As a result those problems because more and more irritating and obvious, because I wasn’t expecting them to be there.
The Night Circus ostensibly revolves around two characters, Marco and Celia, who both exhibit some kind of magical powers and have both been prepared from childhood for a ‘game’ in which they must use this magic in competition with an opponent. Eventually the two meet through their shared connection to Le Cirque du Rêves, a black and white circus that only opens in the dark and then the game begins…
My issues with The Night Circus can primarily be summed up in one criticism: this is a very shallow book. Its characters are flashy but underdeveloped, its prose is stylish but the story it tells is rambling and slow and feels like a sideshow to the lavish descriptions of the circus. What should be the central crux of the plot is never explained even up to the last moment with Morgenstern’s characters constantly excusing the lack of exposition because it’s too complicated or would take too long until it becomes clear that even the author herself doesn’t grasp the rules of the magic that her story revolves around. It’s poor world-building, and it seems to stem from the fact that, like Bailey or Celia, Morgenstern’s world doesn’t exist much outside the circus. More of the book appears dedicated to detailing the amazing sights and smells of the circus that developing Celia and Marco’s characters and relationship. Morgenstern’s prose is more attached to the circus and its visual spectacles than in fostering a connection between the reader and the characters or advancing the flimsy plot.
As a result I found it hard to invest in Marco and Celia’s struggles, their competition and later their romance as I felt I didn’t really know either of them as characters. If you asked me to describe them now I’d find it very hard as beyond their magical abilities and emotional stoicness neither are given many characteristics. Until they fall in love neither has any particular ambition or passion and so they feel unreal and hard to connect to. Usually I can accept such weak characters if the plot is fast-paced and action-packed enough, but The Night Circus’s story dawdles along at painfully slow momentum with Morgenstern irritatingly glossing over any opportunity for actual action or character development. We are never shown Celia and Marco gathering the inspiration for their tents in the circus or in the process of creating them (likely because Morgenstern doesn’t apparently know how the vaguely described magic of her world actually works) which could have allowed deeper insight into their characters and their budding feelings for one another as well as providing a spectacle than helped move the plot along. But instead we only hear a cold, detached account of the end result, a spectacle for sure, but not one that fosters any investment in the story.
As I was reading, The Night Circus reminded me very strongly of trick films from the 1890s and 1900s, around the same era in which the novel is set. At this early stage in the development of cinema, films were often short and rarely had much plot, the novelty of the moving image being enough to make them appealing. Trick films demonstrated the earliest forms of special effects, using the technology of cinema to show impossible tricks. The master of the form was Georges Méliès, you can watch his short film Le Magicien below to get an idea of the genre. Trick films were primarily concerned with displaying the spectacle of cinema magic, and The Night Circus’s long and frequent descriptions of the circus acts, often tangential to the ‘main’ plot, reminded me of this.
I feel like I may have enjoyed The Night Circus more if it had done away with its main story and instead become a series of short stories on the various acts of the circus. Celia and Marco’s story is too stereotypical (star-crossed lovers, yawn) to properly sustain the plot of an almost 500 page novel but as a short story it could pack a more concentrated punch as it wouldn’t have to be so drawn out. This format would also mean that the asides detailing the circus would feel less tangential and would allow for the exploration of other characters like the lion-taming Murrays, the fascinating human statues or Tsukiko, who never rises above being a token of diversity cloaked in uncomfortably Orientalist mystery in the novel.
Unfortunately, this has been a mostly negative review, because I wanted to contradict the heaps of praise I’ve seen for this book, but The Night Circus isn’t all bad. It certainly has enchanting elements to it, I especially enjoyed the growing cult of circus-obsessed revêurs and the sadly brief exploration of the sinister effects of the circus on it’s non-magical creators, but don’t go in expecting a strong plot or engaging characters. Ultimately the novel is strongest in the descriptions of the circus’s spectacles which flesh out the wonder of the circus if nothing else and when Morgenstern adopts the voice of Herr Thiessen, a character who shares her enthusiasm for the central setting.