The Night Circus

Have you ever read a book that had an interesting plot but was poorly executed? A novel that you would have loved had it been written differently?

That’s how I feel about Erin Morgenstern’s novel The Night Circus.

Published in 2011, The Night Circus, which is set in Victorian London, is a fantasy that tells the story of two rival magicians raised and trained for the sole purpose of competing against each other in an unusual game.  The exact nature of the game is a mystery, and even their identities were unknown to each other at first.  The venue of the game is later revealed as an extraordinary black and white circus that opens only at night, and the two magicians’ goal is to outdo each other in creating unusual attractions or controlling the circus using their magic.  Think Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell meets Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes but instead of evil spirits and creatures there are star-crossed lovers.

The Night Circus follows a nonlinear type of narrative that spans about 20 years or more of the life of the two magicians, Marco and Celia, trying to outdo each other in their magical circus.  Considering the length of time the novel covers, it’s surprisingly short – the paperback is just a bit over 500 pages.  And that’s where my beef with the novel lies.  The Night Circus is made up of chapters that are short vignettes of a particular day or event instead of a long continuous narrative that follows the characters as the story unfolds.  This style allows the author to focus on  particular events without having to go through the trouble of setting up the situation leading to it or following up what happens after.  I later learned that The Night Circus was a winning entry to NaNoWriMo, a novel-writing contest that takes place every November, and after that I understood why The Night Circus was written the way it was.  Still, I’d have thought that the author would have edited her story, adding flesh to bones before actually publishing it.

As I said earlier, I could have loved this novel – the story is creative and imaginative, its imagery is beautiful, and its main characters are interesting.  I devoured the story in the beginning – I wanted to know what would happen to Celia and to Marco, and I wanted to know more about the game.  Then, I noticed that each chapter just skipped from one big scene to the next, and I found myself frustrated at not knowing what happened to the characters after each event.  The novel never really answered any of my questions either.

I felt that in focusing on the beautiful imagery and the outcome of the story as a whole, the author lost sight of the finer details of her novel, like developing the plot and bringing her characters to life. Her style of writing makes it very easy for readers to imagine her novel as a movie or television series – and maybe that’s what she had in mind all along.  It’s effective for the big screen, but for a novel, that type of writing is just plain laziness. It’s almost as bad as an epistolary novel.

It really is such a shame.  No doubt Erin Morgenstern is talented; she has a brilliant imagination, and I congratulate her on winning NaNoWriMo, but at the hands of a more adept writer, The Night Circus could have been a truly wonderful novel.


The Night Circus (2011) – Erin Morgenstern

Doubleday; e-book / Kindle

Personal rating:  2/5

23 thoughts on “The Night Circus

  1. So I take it you’re not a fan of epistolary novels? I’ve been curious about this book for quite a while now. I don’t know why I haven’t picked it up (or bought a copy of it) yet.

      • I could see what you were getting at with the non-linear comment. I DID have to turn back occasionally to check – (in fact I read the book twice) – but it didn’t bother me all that much.

  2. This was my best read last year haha! I really loved the imagery and I was willing to brush aside my complaints (loose ends, for instance) because of it. 🙂

  3. Pingback: The Night Circus – Yeah, Okay. | Writer Writ – Wrote?

  4. I enjoyed reading this book very much, although I do agree with you in some ways. By the end of the book I was a little confused with what had happened and it never really clicked to me. But, the book painted a lovely picture in my head and I enjoyed reading it more than most books! Great post 🙂

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