When The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern was first published, I heard one gushing, complimentary review after another, but it sounded like a strange book to me, a story about a unique circus that is only open at night. I wasn’t all that interested in the topic (I should have learned my lesson with Water for Elephants), but the rave reviews won out. I bought the novel for my mother for Christmas and then borrowed it after she finished it (and also raved about it!). Well, it is an excellent, engaging novel…and, yes, it is also strange, but in a good way.
I hardly know where to start because this is one of those novels where describing the plot doesn’t begin to explain why the book is so special. At its heart, it is about a competition between two very old…uh…magicians? I suppose that is the right word. Each of them has chosen and trained a young apprentice to carry out this competition on their behalf. Celia and Marco both know that they are part of an unusual contest, but they know very little else – not the scope of their competition nor its stakes nor even, at first, who their competitor is.
The setting for this mysterious competition is Le Cirque de Rêves (literally, the Circus of Dreams). This unique circus is open only at night and features acts and attractions unlike any that have ever been seen before. Even many of the circus’ performers are unaware that it is really the stage for Celia and Marco’s competition. It moves without warning from one location to another, all over the world, attracting legions of ardent followers.
Some of the most fascinating passages in the novel are those that describe the circus in all its one-of-a-kind black and white glory. You will wish you could walk through the tents of the circus yourself and experience its stunning acts first-hand. Morgenstern’s descriptions pull you in, making the circus and its inhabitants feel real. You will smell the caramel and see the white flames of the bonfire in your mind.
But this novel has much more depth than just a collection of sensory images. At its heart, it is a love story, and I came to care for its main characters, especially Celia and Marco, Bailey, and the red-headed twins born on the circus’ opening night, Widget and Poppet. My only complaint (and it is a minor one) was that the chronology of the novel is sometimes confusing, as each chapter bounces back and forth through time. As long as you read the chapter headings closely and take note of when they take place, it’s not too distracting, though it might be hard to keep track of on audio. Eventually, all the disparate threads of the story come together. It is a magical journey you won’t want to miss.