Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Night Circus: Review

Short version of my review of The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern: Cotton candy for the mind.  Tastes good at the time, but no lasting substance.  I am quite sure that if, as in the years before I began blogging, I did not take the time to record my thoughts on this novel then I would not remember a thing about it before very little time had passed.  Except that it's about a circus.  But that's obvious.

Longer version: So, the hype on the book is that Morgenstern has written this awesome, magical, "spell-casting novel [that] is a feast for the senses and the heart." We have a circus that arrives without warning in towns and cities all around the world.  No notices, no advertisements.  Just one day you have an empty field and the next there are black and white striped circus tents all over.  And, supposedly, lurking behind all this is an ultra-fierce, deadly competition between two uber-magicians.   For high stakes--only one can win and the only way that person can win is for the other to give up....permanently.

But the two older magicians who set the competition in motion, don't take into account one tiny, little fact.  That two magicians so closely tied, so evenly matched, so absolutely complementary in every way might fall in love.  But will their love destroy everything--the game, the circus performers, the patrons....and even themselves?

Yeah, so okay.  This was a particularly intriguing premises.  An honest-to-goodness great idea.  With marvelous descriptions of the circus and scenery.  The writing managed to keep me riveted every time I sat down with the book.  It was like eating cotton candy at the circus--it read so yummy when I was scarfing it down, and yet I didn't feel like I had much to show for it afterward.  The story seemed good at the time, but there were all these niggling points.  Like....

Why the heck did we bounce all over the place time-wise?  That made no sense whatsoever.  This wasn't a time-travel book.  The plot would have flowed much better if we could have followed the story straight.  

And why the heck is it told in the present tense?  Why are so many recent books I've picked up written in the present tense?  It doesn't go down quite as well (threw the flavor of the cotton candy off just a tad).  And why did Morgenstern tell more than she showed?  That's a big rule in writing--show, don't tell.  There were lots of sentences that read, "And then [fill in character's name] told [other character] all about it [whatever we're talking about]" And we, the readers, get to take it as gospel truth.  We don't actually see a lot of it happen.  When Morgenstern actually does allow the characters to interact and show us things, the story is beautiful--it's just not sustained.

I cared more about Bailey...one of the minor characters throughout most of the book...than I did about either Celia or Marco, our two dueling magicians.  The most feeling I had about either one of them was over the unfairness of these two old magicians using anyone they could to play out their own personal duel--without getting directly involved themselves and without caring who gets hurt along the way.  I was much more interested in Bailey and his friendship with Poppet and Widget than I was on the "a deep, magical love that makes the lights flicker and the room grow warm whenever they so much as brush hands" that's supposedly going on between Celia and Marco. 

I also cared more about Friedick Thiessen and was pretty angry about what happens with his character.

There is very little explanation of anything for 99% of the book.  Why we're battling, how long it's gone on, what exactly will satisfy the old guys ('cause it sure isn't the demise of one of their players--that's happened before and we just start a new competition), how exactly Bailey with NO experience is able to suddenly take up the reins when needed (when you consider that Celia and Marco had years of training.....).  I could go on.

And yet....there is something about the book.  Something addictive that made me keep reading and made it hard to put down when I needed to.  Which would be why I'm giving it three stars instead of less (which I keep feeling an urge to do--must be the magic overpowering me).

Tara and Lainie do a little bit of everything. Sometimes dancers, sometimes actresses. Once they were librarians, but that is a subject they will discuss only if heavily intoxicated. [p. 58]

Follow your dreams, Bailey. Be they Harvard or something else entirely. No matter what that father of yours says, or how loudly he may say it. He forgets  that he was someone's dream once, himself. ~Bailey's grandmother [p. 87]
"So you see every thing before it happens?" Bailey asks. He is not sure Poppet's answer is entirely what he expected, if he expected anything at all.
Poppet shakes her head.
"No, not everything. Sometimes just bits of things like words and pictures in a book, but the book has lots of pages missing and it's been dropped in a pond and some parts are blurry but other parts aren't"

I am tired of everyone keeping their secrets so well that they get other people killed. We are all involved in your game, and it seems we are not as easily repaired as teacups. ~Lainie [p. 256]

P: I tried to explain as much as I could. I think I made an analogy about cake.
W: Well that must have worked.  Who doesn't like a good cake analogy?
~Poppet; Widget [p. 276]

You're in the right place at the right time, and you care enough to do what needs to be done. Sometimes that's enough. ~Celia Bowen [p. 360]

There are no more battles between good and evil, no monsters to slay, no maidens in need of rescue.  Most maidens are perfectly capable of rescuing themselves in my experience, at least the ones worth something, in any case. ~Alexander (the man in the grey suit) [p. 377]

Someone needs to tell those tales.  When the battles are fought and won and lost, when the pirates find their treasures and the dragons eat their foes for breakfast with a nice cup of Lapsang souchong, someone needs to tell their bits of overlapping narrative. There's magic in that. It's in the listener, and for each and every ear it will be different, and it will affect them in ways they can never predict. From the mundane to the profound. You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone's soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose. That tale will move them and drive them and who knows what they might do because of it, because of your words. ~Alexander [p. 381]


Shirley said...

The Night Circus does cast a certain magic upon the reader and one hesitates to put it down. I may not remember the characters terribly well but I do remember how I felt while reading it and that the imagery was incredible!

I like this passage you wrote: But the two older magicians who set the competition in motion, don't take into account one tiny, little fact. That two magicians so closely tied, so evenly matched, so absolutely complementary in every way might fall in love. But will their love destroy everything--the game, the circus performers, the patrons....and even themselves? ~ Perfect!

Gypsi said...

I haven't read this one, but I have read others that didn't stay with me--I love your comparison of cotton candy!

J F Norris said...

I bought this last year and still haven't read it. In the past two months I have read two reviews (yours included) on blogs that tell the truth about this VERY hyped up book. Both opinions have kept me from opening to the first page. All of this - your basic analogy especially - reminds me of my reaction to Lev Grossman's THE MAGICIANS. Exactly the same things in fact. Enjoyable while reading, but too many niggling questions. No real cohesion or inner logic. Too much incident. I think these books about magic and wizards sometimes are too derivative to ever really be enjoyed as an original work. We keep comparing it to other better books or the rather obvious influences that find their way into the book.

Bev Hankins said...

John: The honest truth is--if I hadn't joined a couple of challenges that made this one an obvious choice then I doubt sincerely that I would ever have picked it up. On the one hand, these challenges are good--they take me out of my comfort zone and sometimes I discover some really awesome books that I never would have tried. On the other hand, I sometimes wind up spending time on cotton candy when I should have been having some meat and potatoes.