book review: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

The backstory: The Night Circus is one of the most buzzed about fall debuts and everyone seems to be loving it.

The basics: There's a black and white circus. It comes at night. It's magical. People love it.

My thoughts: I confess the premise of a magical circus didn't grab me, but the opening pages certainly did. Morgenstern creates a fascinating, magical, historical world. I was utterly absorbed for the first one hundred pages. I stayed awake late to read more.

About half-way through the novel, I sensed it plateauing. Descriptions of the circus still abounded, as new tents were added and different people experienced them. I became restless because so little was actually happening. The circus appeared in fascinating cities around the world, yet the setting wasn't incorporated in any way. Knowing it was in Paris or Egypt didn't add anything, which disappointed me.

I'm a huge fan of character-driven novels, and much of what I loved in the first half of the book were the character descriptions. My favorite description was of the Burgess sisters:
"The Burgess sisters arrive together. Tara and Lainie do a little bit of everything. Sometimes dancers, sometimes actresses. Once they were librarians, but that is a subject they will only discuss if heavily intoxicated."
Moregenstern also played with time, which I initially enjoyed. This early musing from Bailey is divine:
"He reads histories and mythologies and fairy tales, wondering why it seems that only girls are ever swept away from their mundane lives on farms by knights or princes or wolves. It strikes him as unfair to not have the same fanciful opportunity himself. And he is not in the position to do any rescuing of his own."
We meet Celia and Marco as children, and I was eager to see them grow up and duel. Despite promising beginnings, I didn't feel either character was terribly well developed. I longed for more descriptions of their thoughts and feelings rather than the magic each contributed to the circus.

While the magic of the circus captivated me for two hundred pages, the lack of character development and plot hindered my enjoyment of the book as a whole.

Favorite passage: "There are no longer simple tales with quests and beasts and happy endings. The quests lack clarity of goal or path. The beasts take different forms and are difficult to recognize for what they are. And there are never really endings, happy or otherwise."

The verdict: Despite a strong beginning, The Night Circus failed to live up to its early promise. I longed for more adventure in plot and more development in the characters I found so intriguing. Ultimately, this passage reflects my thoughts on the book as a whole:
'You are not taking this as seriously as you should.'
'It's a circus,' Celia says. 'It's difficult to take it seriously.'
'The circus is only a venue.' 
The circus was a lovely venue, but it wasn't enough to sustain this novel.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Length: 400 pages
Publication date: September 13, 2011
Source: publisher, via Edelweiss

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  1. I think we had similar thoughts on this one. I also thought it had a strong beginning, but the plot didn't engage me enough in the second half. :-(

  2. I've read a lot of reviews that talk about it being very descriptive and that's something that makes me shy away from reading it.

  3. Lack of both character development and plot development? I wasn't planning on reading The Night Circus anyways, but at least now I know my gut-feeling assessment had some basis to it...

  4. I have heard really good things about this book. Yours is the first so-so review I have seen. I should pick it up and read it for myself.

  5. It's interesting to see that after the initials raving reviews there's much more balance around.

    Your is the first I read that mentions the lack of differentiation of location. You'd expect that with so much description, it would be one of the book's strong points.

  6. I like how you tied those quotes at the end into your review. My husband is reading this now and I wonder if he would say the same because he was into it at first but it seems like his interest in the story has waned a little. I've noticed because ive been patiently waiting for my turn lol. So thats sort of disappointing!

  7. It's always good to hear a bit of balance when something gets rave reviews. I think the premise sounds awesome, but I also think that this is one of those that has been over-hyped. I wanted to read it as soon as I heard about it, but now I think it would be better to wait a bit and let my high expectations cool down a bit.

  8. I've seen other reviews that bemoan the lack of character development. But I'm still happy with my visit to the circus. :-D

  9. I see what you're saying, but I absolutely loved it. I agree the characters weren't fully developed but I just went with the flow and felt like I knew them enough. I really enjoyed the writing and the descriptions of the circus. I was really wrapped up in those.

  10. Thanks for the review! I've been eying this one, but realized it's mostly because of the "buzz". It helps a lot to read reviews from people whose opinions I respect!

  11. Your feelings on this one were a lot like Aarti's, I think. I can totally see where you are coming from, and even though I loved the book, I do have to agree that the character development took a backseat to other things. I think your review on this one was very thoughtful and interesting. You make some very convincing points.

  12. This is going to sound weird, but thank you for not adoring this one! I have a copy, and I plan to read it, but I'm pretty much always disappointed when books are so hyped. I'm glad you found things about it to enjoy. The writing does seem lovely.

  13. I've been hearing similar opinions lately - fascinating world, not much in form of characters, and I think it might bother me too.

  14. I posted my review of this one this morning. I liked it a bit more than you did, though. That surprises me because I adore character driven novels but I got caught-up in the descriptive passages and they were so wonderful, that they were enough for me.

  15. Thanks for your honest review -- I've only seen one other less-than-swoony review so I appreciate your thoughts. I suspect your observations would echo mine so the warning is good -- I won't get too excited!

  16. I didn't read too far into your review as I only just hit the halfway point yesterday evening, but am sensing feeling the same. I feel like I should have a better idea of what's happening considering I did just hit the halfway mark. Happy to be able to come back and share when I do finish.

  17. In much the same way you thanked me a while ago for my contrarian [not deliberate, haha!] view on Simon Van Booy's novel, can I just say how much I appreciate any opinion in this book that goes, "BEST BOOK EVER." Not that I doubt the veracity of the reviews--I'm just so inundated by the hype and the marketing, it's gotten me crazy.

    How's this for contrarian: I am so tempted to get a copy of the book just to see how I'll feel about it, and not so much because I actually want to read it. :|

  18. I felt the same way! The romantic bit between the two was almost laughable. Is that love? I mean, ok, I kind of get it. I loved the whimsical nature as it transported me to another place. I just didn't feel connected to the characters and found the ending hurried. All and all, it was certainly a fun read, just not as wonderful has everyone had led me to believe.


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