Morgenstern reportedly earned a six-figure advance for the story (a nearly unheard of sum for a debut novelist), and the movie rights sold to Summit Entertainment before the book had even been released to the public. It’s difficult to recall another instance in which a novel from a previously unknown writer has been this anticipated.
“The Night Circus,” for the most part, holds up to the attention it’s been garnering. Morgenstern’s lush, enchanting prose is the star here, far outstripping her own plot and characters in favor of sensual, over-the-top imagery that begs to be read slowly and with relish.
The titular circus of the novel is Le Cirque de Reves, or the Circus of Dreams. Created as a venue for an ages-old competition set up between two young magicians at the end of the 19th century, the circus is unlike any other in existence. The ring of black-and-white striped tents simply appear unannounced in a new city every few weeks, and sights — including tattooed contortionists, a maze made entirely of clouds, a massive cauldron bubbling over undying, multihued flames and a carousel with uncannily lifelike creatures — stun the senses and leave visitors craving more.
At the center of the narrative are Marco and Celia, the two fledgling magicians who are forced into a competition of magical skill and endurance by their respective mentors. Rather than inspiring enmity, however, the mysterious challenge brings the two together and they fall deeply in love, pitching the formerly balanced fate of the entire circus and its members into peril.
Morgenstern is clearly in her element when creating her elaborate, intoxicating descriptions of the exotic circus and its strange inhabitants. These long passages of meticulously detailed set-dressing alone are enough to carry the plot, which eventually becomes weighed down by its own intricacies and mythology and loses steam somewhat by the story’s end.
Despite this, Morgenstern proves adept at deftly skipping back and forth through times and across story lines and eventually skillfully bringing her various story threads together.
The novel’s characterization can also be uneven. In particular, the two lovers can be somewhat weakly drawn. Although intriguing enough on their own, together, Marco and Celia are hard to swallow, as Morgenstern doesn’t give the reader enough of their interaction to make their romance believable and the culmination of their relationship comes off as slightly sappy. However, other characters in the broad ensemble, such as the precocious red-headed twins Poppet and Widget, eccentric circus proprietor Chandresh Christophe LeFèvre and Japanese contortionist Tsukiko are masterfully drawn and fascinating to explore.
All in all, “The Night Circus” is a captivating start to what will hopefully become a long career for Morgenstern and her imaginative, opulent prose, which is bound to haunt readers for days after putting the book down.
Printed on September 29, 2011 as: Circus novel generates buzz, falls short on romance plot