Thursday, October 3, 2013

Book Review: Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus

The Night CircusI was only maybe two or three chapters into this book when I realized that there was something magical about the book itself, not just the story within it. It took me a while to figure out what made the book so dreamlike and lovely. So far it certainly wasn’t the storyline—in the first several chapters we are treated primarily to an abusive/bordering-on-murderous father, a suicide, an incredibly out-of-place vulgarity,* and another father figure who adopts an orphan only to prepare him to fight to the death. So, not a lot of loveliness there.

But there are two hints that pull you through the ugliness of the opening story. The first is the opener, a truly brilliant page that uses the second person POV (“you do this, you do that”). It is an invitation to enter the Cirque des RĂªves (the Circus of Dreams) and come see for yourself, and it works like a magnet, pulling you in.

The other hint was something I had a hard time quantifying at first. There was something in the quality of the writing that made it beautiful, but it’s not as if there were many particularly beautiful sentences or paragraphs that I could point to. Eventually I decided that it felt like the cadence of the writing, the rhythm of the words, a little like a gentle lullaby or the soft rocking of a boat on calm water. It was like that quiet space of time before you fall asleep and dream, where your mind is suggestible and everything seems possible.

To me, that dreamy cadence is what made this whole novel work so well—beyond the fantastical world of the circus and the romance of the story, either of which would have made the book a success on its own. But it was that strange and lovely rhythm that made the book magic.

I would totally go to this circus.**

A side note: My book club met to discuss it, and we dressed in black and white with a splash of red, just like the fans of the circus. We ate black and white and red themed foods (which was really hard, by the way—there aren’t a lot of nondessert items that are really black or white). I lit cinnamon- and vanilla-scented candles and darkened lights, and I wished I could have hired a contortionist (okay, not really). It’s a good book club book, and it lends itself very much toward sensory experiences.

A content note: I’ve already revealed pretty much all the negative content. There is a little more violence, as well, but it is not graphic and does not glorify the violence. The only other content concern is a short, nongraphic sex scene. You can see it coming a mile away and easily skip the page.

* I recognize that in the writing world, I’m a bit of a prude. But even setting that aside, this particular swear word was so out of place in the story. It felt like a definite misstep for pure (and pointless) shock value. It was so jarring, so wrong for the diction, the setting, and even the character that I had to look it up to see when the word first came into use. It did, indeed, originate before the setting of this story, so at least it wasn’t anachronistic, but it still didn’t fit. There are so few critiques that I have to offer for this story, but I really think this one was a mistake.
** Plus, it doesn’t have clowns.


  1. "there aren’t a lot of nondessert items that are really black or white"

    The chicken and apple stir fry I just had was very close to white until I covered it in garlic and pumpkin pie spice, turning it decidedly white and black. Anything cajun or cooked in squid ink will come out black. Black bean anything with salsa and sour cream, then white or black tortillas(/chips). Popcorn. White rice and raisins (close to black). Smother anything in enough alfredo sauce and it's white - and indeed most pasta dishes would work, particularly if you replace the heavy red sauce with a garnish of diced tomatoes. Cream of anything soup or anything chowder. White fish or salmon. Sushi rolls. Potato salad. Boiled eggs. Bread and cream cheese. Fruit salad: bananas and peeled apples, splash of lemon juice to keep them fresh and provide a contrasting flavor, and either macadamia nuts or sliced almonds; maraschino cherries can add red. Watermelon, but the color scheme wants only a little watermelon and it usually comes in very large portions. White asparagus or cauliflower. Lightly bleached cabbage (as we have to do in Nigeria) makes a white coleslaw. Anything dipped in ranch dressing or marinara or ketchup. Cream of wheat, which can also be cooked much too thickly so you can roll it into balls and dip into interesting sauces. Lutefisk. Eggplant.

    I think really the trick is that the vast majority of these are heavier dishes. Depending on my crowd, I'd probably go for colored popcorn, bean dip or sushi, coleslaw or potato salad, fruit salad, and cauliflower with dipping sauces ... though one of them might end up getting turned into the bread and cream cheese for want of time.

    1. Show off. :)

      Just kidding. But mostly the problem was that I was looking for really pure-pure white and pure-pure black. Sure, bananas and cucumbers and cauliflower and such look white until they're all together. Then suddenly they look colorful. Oh, plus, I didn't want to do anything that required much effort. :) That may have been a problem too.

      Still, even though we ended up only sort of black and white, it was a good time.

      (And seriously? Lutefisk? Are you insane? I thought only Babette made that.)