Jessica Jeffers's Reviews > The Night Circus

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
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Sep 29, 11

bookshelves: fiction
Read from September 15 to 27, 2011

As a young girl, Celia Bowen is delivered to the father she never knew, a world famous magician whose secret is that his show is genuine magic - not illusions. He teaches Celia to manipulate the world in the same way so that she can compete in a high-stakes game against Marco, an orphan similarly trained by her father's nemesis. The arena for this game is an elaborate, surreal circus. Neither Celia nor Marco knows the extent of the game, nor their opponent, until they have fallen in love with each other.

I am going to blow the mind of everyone who gave this book five stars. My biggest problem with it was how badly Erin Morgenstern broken the cardinal rule of creative writing: show, don't tell.

I will 100% agree that Morgenstern did an incredible job describing the wonder and magic of the circus. Her elaborate descriptions of magical tents and off-beat performers initially drew me in, though I worried about how long-winded and verbose some of her descriptions could be. Morgenstern's problem is that the plot and character development takes places mostly through dialogue and not action. Most of the significant plot twists were revealed by one character telling another, which took most of the suspense out of the story. I had the same problem with the character development. There was practically no exposition to give insight into these characters, no sense that they acted with reason beyond the need to make the story do what Morgenstern wanted. They didn't feel real.

And the love story? Please. Dear Ms. Morgenstern: I do not believe two characters are in love simply because they say they are. They should act as though they are falling in love. Celia and Marco declare intense feelings for each other the first time they meet one another. The result is a juvenile, melodramatic, and inauthentic "romance" that I couldn't bring myself to care about. It's just like my friend's fourteen year old sister who declares her world-ending love for a different boy each week: "This one's different. It's real. I swear."

Similarly, it bothered me that the high-stakes battle unfolded in the form of Celia and Marco conjuring magical tents for each other...from afar. She did it from the center of the circus, where she was one of its main attractions, and he did it from London, where he worked as the assistant of one of the founders. I was expecting a dangerous, breathtaking game of one-upsmanship along the lines of the movie The Prestige. I know that the distance between Celia and Marco was necessitated by Morgenstern's love story, but it hardly made the game feel Life-and-Death. There was no suspense, so urgency, and really no sense of competition at all. Celia and Marco kept being told that they had to be careful and they had to up their game and that the battle would be coming to a head soon....but nothing ever seemed to come of these warnings. I never once worried that one of them was in danger.

I would give Morgenstern four stars for imagination and creativity, but her execution falls flat. If you want to read this solely for the descriptions of the circus and the magic, I'm sure you will enjoy this book a lot. If you're looking for a well-told story, look elsewhere.
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Comments (showing 1-38 of 38) (38 new)

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Heather Absolutely perfect review. Exactly how I felt about it but couldn't put into words :)


Lori Lee I agree 100%


Shannon I found the forward and backward flashes annoying; her verbose style of writing was exhausting.


Tara I agree. The prose and imagery is lovely and has an air of magic about it, but there just isn't a good storyline to go along with it. I'm about 1/4 from the end. It's not so bad that I wouldn't finish it - so that's saying something - but this might be one of the first books where I've actually wished for spoilers so I could find out if anything worth reading about is actually going to occur at some point. Boring!


Stephen Completely agree.


Becky YES. This describes how I felt about it perfectly.


Anne I am loving this book. I'm currently within pages of the end and I'm reading one-star reviews for two reasons: first, to prolong my enjoyment of the book, and second, to see if the ending is going to break my heart.
There are lots of different readers in the world, so I do appreciate your review! I agree that it's not your typical type of story-telling. Myself, I'm finding the book so intense that I can only read a few pages at a time, it's so complex and visually gorgeous. I have to stop and relax my senses or it's too much to take in.


Sara I agree with Anne - I loved this book. Like many of these readers, I do tend to get bored with overly descriptive imagery as well but I found this imagery so very original, it kept even me riveted to the story. I also hate circuses and, yet again, I loved this one. There was something about this book that made me almost believe such things were possible. Perhaps they are going on all around us and we don't see??/ I wish people would mention what books they DO like in these reviews. I am curious as these reviewers seem very intelligent and literate - ha - and I would love to hear their suggestions for a good read :)


Jessica Jeffers The thing is, I often do like descriptive imagery and I think that Morgenstern did that part of this book pretty well. I just felt that the plot and the character development was lacking and her ability to drive an engaging plot forward just wasn't evident.

Feel free to look through my "read" shelf - sort it by rating to see which ones I've liked. I try really hard to write about why I like them. I also LOVE giving recommendations - what kind of story are you looking for?


message 10: by Sara (new) - rated it 5 stars

Sara I just looked quickly over your fiction list. I read a lot and was amazed to see all the books on your list I have not read! I love a good story. I am tired of reading about other peoples problems, and would love a good story for a change. I loved "City of Thieves" - great characters, great plot, great, clear, vivd, well crafted writing. I tend to like historical fiction as it keeps one away from the topic of 'the problems of modern life' which I find tedious. Truman Capote's stories are amazing. Amitav Ghosh has written 2 great books ("Sea of Poppies" and "River of Smoke") where you move through time and exotic places. Things happen!! Opium wars, dangerous voyages, etc. in a well spun tale. I want more :) I am new to Goodreads and think I will like it. I would be interested to hear your recommendations - thanks


Jessica Jeffers Have you read The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht? It's magical realism, set in the Balkans, and bounces back and forth between the past and present as a woman goes to recover her grandfather's body and recalls stories from his life. It doesn't have the most tense plot but the writing is very vivid and it has unique, historical aspects. State of Wonder by Anne Patchett is great, too. Strays from the "problems of the modern life" formula and takes you into the heart of the jungle. And Kate Morton writes GREAT historical fiction if you are interested in early twentieth century England.


message 12: by Kenya (new)

Kenya Wright Thank god! Bravo for someone who is saying what I am thinking! I was wondering if I had suddenly become a moron! I 100% agree with what you are saying.


message 13: by Sara (new) - rated it 5 stars

Sara Thanks Jessica - I have The Tiger's Wife in my "pile" and will check it out along with the other titles you suggest :) Many thanks for your recommendations -Sara


message 14: by Lisa (new) - rated it 1 star

Lisa Your review perfectly expresses how I felt about this novel! Thank you so much for putting it into words.


Denise i agree completely!


Tally Bravo! Excellent review - you described it perfectly.


Jessica Jeffers Thanks, Tally!


Nadine Millar Nice review, justified me abandoning it at 154 pages so thanks for that! I was interested to note though that you enjoyed the Tiger's Wife - I really couldn't stand it (but you are right to make the connection between the two books as I feel they have something in common). I don't know, sometimes we just have to be in the right mood for a book, don't we? I think the Night Circus for example was well written, it bothered me that it couldn't grab me. Some books require more patience than others, and also a particular mood - I look at Cormac McCarthy on my shelf, for example, and know I love him to bits, but feel really glad that I read him 10 years ago as I reckon if I tried to read him now he'd do my head in! It just depends where we're at at any given moment, doesn't it. And sadly for Morgenstern, it seems there are a few of us that just couldn't stick around for the final act!


Jessica Jeffers Part of me thinks I should re-read The Tiger's Wife to see how well it holds up. I thought that it was kind of slow moving, but I enjoyed her prose and I loved the magical realism elements that she used.

Conversely, I have never been able to get into Cormac McCarthy's style. I understand why others like him, but his writing is difficult for me to read.

You are completely right about being in the right mood. There were some books that I read right after a bad break-up that I loved, but when I went back to them I couldn't remember why. I guess they just spoke to where I was at the time and I think that's one of the most important things about books.


Nadine Millar So true - actually, I created a new Goodreads shelf "top ten again" and am hoping to find the time to read these books again this year. They have been my "top ten" for so long and I am wondering if they are indeed still deserving of that position - I haven't added or removed anything to/from it for years which just can't be right.

I guess in a sense books are marker points on a journey, aren't they, showing us the way we've come. I have to say though, I'm still a little embarrassed by how much I enjoyed "The Bronze Horseman." But I guess that's where I was back then... big sweeping sloppy romance between some girl and a tall guy with big muscles. Whereas now I'm a little more Alice Munro about things... Oh, and then how could I forget the McCarthy phase. Oh dear. I'm sure I developed a bit of a gait back then, chewed gum, and liked bandanas a little more than was healthy/trendy.

Bbbrrrr.


message 21: by [deleted user] (new)

This review satisfies my hatred towards this book and $23.00 I spent.


Jessica Jeffers Ha! Glad to be of service, Umair. I sold the book back to a used book store, so at least I got some of my money back.


Maylin I too agree with Anne. It's so magical, I have to take brief pauses. Emotions weight high. I'm just a bit different. Although I am not done reading it yet, I plan on giving this book the five stars I believe it deserves.


Bette I agree completely about showing vs. telling. I was so frustrated with this book. Morgenstern was trying so hard to be imaginative and creative that I could feel the strain. And the jumping back and forth in time (just one year, usually) seemed unnecessary. The characters were flat and the plot rambled, especially in the first half of the book. I kept waiting for the story to pick up, and about halfway it did, but only somewhat. Neil Gaiman loved it, so I thought I would too. (I heard him say so in an interview.) Gaiman is a FAR superior writer!


message 25: by Jenn (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jenn I think you took the words out of my mouth! I gave the books four stars because I really did enjoy the creative aspect of it but I was definitely disappointed with Celia and Marco's relationship. I wasn't overly thrilled with the plot either. It certainly did ramble a bit and the book seemed quite rushed near the end. Thanks for the review!


Diane C. Listening to this as a book on cd, and at disc 6, am getting bored. Yes, show, dont' tell. A disappointment. Great style, but not enough substance. Your review is right on.


Madeleine R-A The thing is, you have to really pay attention to all the details. Tsukiko says that, with all magicians sent into a competition, the magical bond between them ties them close together. She had had intense feelings for her own competition before said competition was turned into a pillar of salt.


Jessica Jeffers It's been a couple of years since I read this, so I don't recall every specific plot point, but I felt like Morgenstern was telling us that the characters had intense feelings that weren't being demonstrated in an authentic way. But that's just me.


message 29: by Erin (new) - rated it 2 stars

Erin I didn't feel the 'game' or the competition between them. All they did was build tents and manage a circus...I didn't seem like a life threatening suspenseful game. Nothing felt real and like you said, their 'love' was not believable.


Natalie I agree with every single word in this review.


Katherine Slattery When did creative writing start having rules?


Madeleine R-A I must agree with Kat on this. There are no "rules" to creative writing, or else it wouldn't be creative.

That aside, all books are made to appease different audiences. Different types of people perceive things differently. I loved this book and think that the love in it was believable, and I like the way that it was written, but others don't.

Let's take another book for example. Looking for Alaska by John Green. Now, I love John Green, I am a Nerdfighter, and I absolutely adored The Fault in our Stars. After reading The Fault in our Stars, I read Looking For Alaska because of all the great things I'd heard about it. Everyone I know loves it, but I just...like it. Same with the other John Green books besides The Fault in our Stars. To me, the beginnings are great, but then the big event happens, and the last third of the book is the winding down. And some things just seem so random in his books. This also happens in the Fault in our Stars, but I think I was able to stay with it because I could connect in some way with what was going on, cancer and cancer killing people and so forth. Maybe I would keep interest in his other books if I could connect to them more. I think John Green is a marvellous writer, but his style just doesn't click with me. The same can be said about anyone else with another book, such as The Night Circus.

People just have different preferences in writing styles. Some styles are enjoyed by fewer people than others are, like Erin Morgenstern's style. And that is fine. I like it and others don't. Okay, great. Doesn't mean it's necessarily a bad book, it's just that some don't enjoy it much. Just ask the Twilight fandom.


Jessica Jeffers Walk into the writing reference section of any bookstore and explore some of the books on creative writing. Talk to anyone who's ever taken a creative writing class at any level. Yes, there are rules. No, they are not necessarily universal and they don't have to be followed to the letter every time in order for a book to succeed. Yes, a book can succeed even if it breaks those rules.

But "Show, don't tell" is far and away the most common advice given to writers and I think that Erin Morgenstern was doing too much telling and not enough showing. I felt like she was telling me facts about the characters and not providing the character development necessary to show it. It didn't work for me and that's all I was trying to say here.


message 34: by Cullan (new)

Cullan The Show/Tell thing is entirely a modern conceit. It suits the tastes of TODAY. Literature in the past was often quite florid with lengthy passages of exposition and very little dialogue. I often bristle at the thought that a novel has to follow this by-the-numbers equation. I think most modern readers are lazy. If it didn't grip you in the first paragraph, it's not worth reading. Now, I should say that this is my opinion in general and I'm not going to weigh in on the merits of this book particularly, as I have yet to read it. I arrived here in wanting to learn more about The Night Circus.


Jessica Jeffers My problem with The Night Circus, though, is not long passages of exposition and description. It's that the writer is being lazy and instead of showing us character development, she is simply stating facts about the characters and expecting the reader to go with it. I wanted the characters to have more depth and that is something you get by showing how the characters behave instead of telling us what the characters are like.


Jessica Jeffers My problem with The Night Circus, though, is not long passages of exposition and description. It's that the writer is being lazy and instead of showing us character development, she is simply stating facts about the characters and expecting the reader to go with it. I wanted the characters to have more depth and that is something you get by showing how the characters behave instead of telling us what the characters are like.


Annalisa Smith I agree. I started this book weeks ago (it takes me days, not weeks, to read a book!). I ended up setting it down halfway through and picking up another. It's just too long winded. I felt like I was watching a snail drag itself from one side of the dinner table to the next. I just couldn't finish it.


Angela I did a lot of eye rolling while reading this one.. Gave it 3 Stars because the creativity of the story was impressive- but was happy when it ended!


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