Micha's Reviews > The Night Circus

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
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's review
Jun 27, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: magic-books, must-read-audiobooks, mystery-discover-and-adventure, through-the-glass-darkly, pretty-floofy-thing
Recommended to Micha by: Karen, Joel, Reader's Advisory
Recommended for: kerry, people who love tea parties, black & white, or Victorian dress-up
Read in March, 2012 , read count: 2

This review is for the audio book version of The Night Circus, read by the wonderful Jim Dale. This review is also part of the "readers advisory for all" group read & review discussion panel.

This is a book where the main character is a dream sequence rather than a person. The author attempted to give us a premise to work with, but really could have gotten away with 300 pages of circus descriptions and probably should have just written a bunch of short stories concerning the people who are affected by the real main character – the circus itself.

For me, the main plot actually got in the way of enjoying this novel as well as I would have had their plot just been one of the stories told in a series of many. When I stop to reflect for a moment I realized that the plot didn’t bother me because I didn’t like it, but that I didn’t feel it was worthy of such spot light. However, if it had been one story in many it would have stood out to me. I would have been far more interested in it had it been more humble and not trying to desperately to get my attention.

The first and strongest impression I received from this novel is that Ms. Morgenstern wrote it entirely for herself. It is a very self-indulgent piece of work, which is likely why it resembles a large, extravagant, floofy cake made by Neil Gaiman & the Steampunk Brigade and decorated by Tim Burton. As a result, we as an audience get the feeling that the author doesn’t really care whether we like the novel because it was written entirely for her, unless we do and then we are in on the secret – which is “isn’t this wonderful‽”

However, I also agree with [the reviewer] Bird Brian claim that the authors attempt to be enigmatic can often err on the side of exaggerated or patronizing. I found myself just as frustrated with parts of the novel as I was enchanted by others and the almost constant tactic of “I’m not telling” did being to make me wonder if the author used up most of her imaginative skills on descriptions and was being lazy with elements of plot and background stories. I decided later that that the author wasn’t trying to exclude her readers, but rather that she is writing about all the pretty dreams she has ever had about great parties and circuses and tea. And as they are dreams, she has decided to keep them vague in order to let the reader fill in the blanks with their own ideas of what would be the best or worst of something, be it a particularly flavourful dish or what Celia knows.

“…In truth, Chandresh prefers not to know as he feels it adds something greater than the sum of its parts. …You prefer not to see the gears of the clock as to better tell the time…”

This follows nicely to my chief complaint of the novel, which was that for a novel, whose main character is the circus, the Circus wasn’t actually featured very often and usually then it was only as a background for the secondary main characters, Celia & Marco or the side story of Bailey’s adventures with Poppet & Widget.

Overall, I would say that because it was trying to be a novel about something rather than just be a novel about a circus, it was more disappointing because it didn’t have enough depth to sustain me and there was a severe lack of character development – particularly where my favourite characters were concerned.

I feel it would have been better if it just stuck with its roots and presented its stories in a series where we learn about the backgrounds of its inhabitants and their experiences in the circus itself.

This is likely due to the fact that I found myself far more interested in the background characters, like Friedrick Herr Thiessen, the Burgess twins, Isobel, and the Bailey/Poppet/Widget side story (which was my favourite aspect of the novel and I believe its strongest as well) than for anything concerning the actual/main plot and was disappointed when they didn’t develop more fully.

The weakness of the novel also provided its greatest strength – a descriptive ambience that can easily be described as cinematic. I could easily have read half the novel (over 150 pages) of nothing more than descriptions of the Night Circus with Bailey as my eyes and Poppet & Widget as my guides and been perfectly content that nothing had actually happened.

This is rare for me in a novel, which is why in some ways I treasured it for all its faults.
The fact of the matter is, if you like Neil Gaiman, Tim Burton, Stephen Merritt, or Amanda Palmer, dark, pretty things, magic, the occult, steampunk (thought this is not a steam punk novel by any means), Cirque du Soleil, pretty language/words (like exsanguinated), fancy cakes, tea parties, British-ness, British things (like tea and fancy dress parties), the Titanic, Downton Abbey, the Victorian era, gothic literature or dressing up – you are probably going to get something wonderful from this book. Especially if you are not particular about things like structure, editors (I’m not convinced this book actually had one, just a good proof reader), repetition, or vagueness. This book isn’t meant to be complicated, just entertaining and I think it has done a right smart job of it.

Update to Review - June 28th, 2012:

It occurred to me that I failed to actually mention anything about the differences between the audio book and actual book versions. I have now had the opportunity to both listen and read this book and I will say that I highly recommend LISTENING to this book rather than reading it. Mr. Dale has done a fantastic job of voicing these characters and transitions seamlessly between the 2nd and 3rd person perspectives, where the 3rd person immerses you within the world while the 2nd person is like hearing a bedtime story.

I had to return my copy of the audio book to the library before finishing the end of the book and decided to get the book so I could finish it – the experience was distressing to say the least. Suddenly I couldn’t read any parts with Celia or Marco and only read parts where Bailey, Poppet, or Widget exists. In the end, I finished the book but decided I didn’t like it as much as I thought. Later, I tried again but this time I brought the marvelous Jim Dale as my guide and suddenly it was excellent again.

My conclusion that this is a book that is meant to be experienced in some way other than simply reading it, perhaps this is due to the cinematic aspect so many reviewers have mentioned. For me, it all comes down to the idea of the book as a bedtime story or a dream – which, like all good stories, must be HEARD to be truly close to it. Get the audio book. You’ll die a little happier that way.

People who liked this wil enjoy... The Prestige, The Magician King, The Alchemy of Stone, Aurorarama (or other steampunk-like novels), Alice Through the Looking Glass/Adventures in Wonderland, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Geek Love, Big Fish (movie), Sweeney Todd (Burton), anything by Kij Johnson or Audrey Niffenegger; The Lost Thing (Shaun Tan), Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day, Pride Prejudice and Zombies.

Subject headings: magic, fantasy, period piece, late 1800's, fancy dinners, fancy dress parties, circus, Romance, duel.
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