Review: The Night Circus

TheNightCircusErin Morgenstern’s novel, The Night Circus, has the roots of a good story, but her writing isn’t strong enough to make use of them. The bulk of her 512 pages are filled with nondescript descriptions and repetitive phrases. The general idea: Celia and Marco have been trained from childhood to participate in a decades-long dual within the confines of the miraculous Le Cirque des Rêves, which is only open at night. Neither of them has an understanding of the rules or knows how the victor will be chosen. Fortunately, the back cover elucidates this little mystery for the reader: “Unbeknownst to them both, this is a game in which only one can be left standing.” I purchased this book with the expectation of a high-stakes contest, but after hundreds of pages of pretty illusions (color-changing dresses, ice gardens) there is no sensation that anything is at stake. Celia and Marco attempt to ‘control’ the circus by creating new attractions for its guests, but without criteria to rank their efforts or to understand what these exhibitions mean for their livelihood, it’s hard to view them as competitors. It was easy to set this book down despite the shamelessly cryptic one-liners that end many chapters.

On page 282, Celia and Marco discuss their dual and I learned I wasn’t alone in feeling this game was low-stakes:

“‘I confess,’ Marco says, ‘I don’t fully understand the point, even after all this time.’
‘Nor do I,’ Celia admits. ‘I suspect calling it a challenge or a game is not entirely accurate. I’ve come to think of it more as a dual exhibition. What else do I get to see on my tour?’
‘Would you like to see something in progress?’ Marco asks. Knowing that she thinks of the circus as an exhibition comes as a pleasant surprise, as he had stopped considering it antagonistic years ago.” (282)

(This nonchalance carries on through to the climax. When this competition that isn’t a competition ends, Widget asks if it’s finished. The cryptic reply: “Yes and no.”)

So for three hundred pages you have descriptions of a circus, the attractions therein, and the accounts of people who are obsessed with it. Lots of descriptive material is acceptable, so long as it’s engaging and unique. However, Morgenstern believes Celia is so surreal and fascinating that she can only be described as “perfect.” Celia, with her perfectly tied shoes, perfect curtsies, and ability to stand perfectly still, possesses genuine magic and this emphasis on her perfection establishes that she is otherworldly. Perfection carries an undercurrent of the supernatural (consider everyone who believes that aliens must have built the pyramids on account of their precision). Celia is slathered in this sheen of perfection as early as the second page of her introductory chapter in which we learn her “laces are knotted in perfect bows.” (10) When she senses her own repetition, Morgenstern will shake things up with uses of “pristine,” “precise,” “immaculate,” and “ideal.” Around page 84, this became so irritating that I started keeping track. This random sampling turned up NINE uses of “perfect” inside 22 pages.

“she adds the perfect flourishes…pauses for the ideal amounts of time” (84)
“and a perfectly painted face” (88)
“perfectly carved flowers and planets” (89)
“‘It is perfection.'” (89)
“she stands perfectly still” (94)
“she stands perfectly still” (98)
“‘She’s perfect […] Absolutely perfect.'” (99)
“always been kept in perfect order” (102)
“a perfect solution” (106)

To be fair, some of these are less egregious. For example, the last is from a line of dialogue and people do often call something “a perfect solution.” But what does it mean that a flower is perfectly carved? Maybe the flowers are symmetrical and carved with Escher-esque precision or maybe they spring from the sides of the clock with the silky lightness of real blossoms. Consistently describing things as “perfect” is a cop-out. Any word used ad nauseum makes me question how much vision the writer has in driving the action. The story is unique enough, but I wanted more creativity and variety in the descriptive passages. So much of this book is about the circus as scenery, and oh, have you heard?—it’s perfect.

Another shortcoming of Morgenstern’s descriptive writing is her tendency to double her sentences; as in, she has a sequence of sentences that all restate the same point. Things get redundant:

“Every element of the circus blends together in a wonderful coalescence. Acts that have been training in separate countries on separate continents now perform in adjacent tents, each part melding seamlessly into a whole. Each costume, each gesture, each sign on each tent is more perfect than the last. The air itself is ideal […]” (121)

“Everything in this tent is white. Nothing black, not even stripes visible on the walls. A shimmering, almost blinding white. There are trees and flowers and grass surrounding twisted pebble pathways, every leaf and petal perfectly white.” (321)

Sometimes the repetition is more straightforward:

“The endpapers are covered in an exquisitely detailed drawing of a tree covered in symbols and markings. [Paragraph of elaboration]. The pages of the book are covered with similar markings.” (326) (Emphasis mine.)

Some descriptions just don’t make sense:

“I can tell something’s wrong and I can feel it crumbling like cake that doesn’t have enough icing to hold it together.” (357)

[The visual that immediately came to my mind was of someone trying to mush a pile of cake crumbs into a cake-like shape, then struggling to hold it in place while slapping icing round the sides to cement its form. Perhaps she means icing between layers? But if the cake is cut relatively level, you just need a bit to help the layers stick. If anything, more icing would be bad as it could result in sliding. Just thinking out loud here.]

What also kept me from connecting with characters is that they’re either too good or too mysterious. Any character that is on the good side of the fence then becomes somewhat limited. Consider the following, in which Widget is a good person (though still unknown to Bailey).

“Widget stares at him for a moment, not quite long enough for Bailey to become uncomfortable under the weight of his eyes, but almost.” (263)

This is a weak sentence. What’s established is that they’re looking at one another the right amount of time to share a connection without anyone being uncomfortable about it. Because of what Widget sees when he looks at a person, it would be in keeping with his character for anyone to feel a mite uncomfortable after sharing a prolonged glance with him. But if Bailey felt uncomfortable in any way, if he felt that Widget and Poppet just maybe weren’t on his side for an instant, then maybe he might actually have to make a slightly more complicated, suspenseful decision as to whether to follow the pair of them. Somehow, despite the life-changing decisions that Bailey has to make (we’re told many times how life-changing they are), Bailey doesn’t agonize much because Morgenstern keeps his decisions simple and obvious while trying to pass them off as difficult to the reader.

It’s amazing to me that someone who writes so much description (occasionally with flair) continually breaks the “show, don’t tell” rule in the actions of her characters. But that’s why this book isn’t very good.

Overall: 2.1.

Translation: Only accept free or borrowed copies.