Friday, March 15, 2013

A Tale of Two Books - The Night Circus

I may have spent a longer amount of time reading The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern than I did on the entire LOTR trilogy. The cover is gorgeous and I had read glowing reviews, so I excitedly picked it up in the bookstore. Alas, one glance showed me that it was written in present tense. I'm more of a past tense gal.

I put it back and later, when we were leaving for a journey, I loaded Night Circus on my Kindle. I began to read, and my eyes glazed over. This happened again and again.

It wasn't that Night is filled with bad writing - far from it. Morgenstern uses beautiful prose, words so lovely that some passages read like poetry. Look at this section:

“Someone needs to tell those tales. When the battles are fought and won and lost, when the pirates find their treasures and the dragons eat their foes for breakfast with a nice cup of Lapsang souchong, someone needs to tell their bits of overlapping narrative. There's magic in that. It's in the listener, and for each and every ear it will be different, and it will affect them in ways they can never predict. From the mundane to the profound. You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone's soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose. That tale will move them and drive them and who knows what they might do because of it, because of your words. That is your role, your gift. Your sister may be able to see the future, but you yourself can shape it, boy. Do not forget that... there are many kinds of magic, after all.” 

And this:

“Stories have changed, my dear boy,” the man in the grey suit says, his voice almost imperceptibly sad. “There are no more battles between good and evil, no monsters to slay, no maidens in need of rescue. Most maidens are perfectly capable of rescuing themselves in my experience, at least the ones worth something, in any case....And is not the dragon the hero of his own story? Is not the wolf simply acting as a wolf should act?”

In the second selection, Morgenstern says, "Things keep overlapping and blur..." They do just that in this book, and luckily the chapter headings include dates to keep us on the right track. Both of the above selections are about story, however, and that's what kept tripping me up with the beginning 70% of Night Circus: there was no story. The language grew more and more gorgeous, so I was almost drunk with words, but at one point I had to stop and read The Stand just to have a book with a real villain, real body fluids, and characters who curse out each other. I needed a dose of filet steak after all that spun sugar.
image courtesy of deviant art

"Dessert consists mainly of a gargantuan tiered cake shaped to resemble circus tents and frosted in stripes, the filling within a bright shock of raspberry cream. There are also miniature chocolate leopards, and strawberries coated in looping patterns of dark and white chocolates." - The Night Circus

The characters all speak in the same, dreamy way, so I could hardly tell one from the other. What was the difference between Celia and Isobel, anyway? One does magic and the other reads cards and they both are attracted to Marco (who also speaks like both of them.)

At last I reached the final section of the book, and finally the story took hold. In the ending 30%, I wanted to keep reading - no longer was it a matter of slogging on through bogs of caramel and popcorn. At last, the competition between Celia and Marco became real and important. Moreover, the characters Poppet and Bailey took center stage, and they were vivid enough to catch my imagination and care about what happened to them, very much. I could envision a sequel about those two, in fact. 
image courtesy of

The Night Circus left me in a quandary. On one hand I loved Morgenstern's language and prowess with words - if the chapters had been presented as interwoven short stories, I might have enjoyed the first major portion of the novel more. On the other hand, the writing was so misty that I couldn't stand much more than a few pages at a time - even a scene where a woman walks in front of a train is told in the manner of a Degas painting. 

I have been told that Jim Dale narrates the audio version, and I think that might be the way to go with the book. Dale's own magic would instil the characters with their own voices, adding layers to the floating beauty of Morgenstern's poetry. Perhaps he could add a bit of irony to the conversations as well, so a comment like this: "I thought it might be easier if you doubted him. And I gave you a year to find a way for the circus to continue without you. You have not. I am stepping in..." might become more realistic, as well as the dreamy response. (If only Celia reacted by saying, "You know what? Go to hell.")

So this review is a tale of two books: the long beginning that I struggled through and the ending that gripped my attention and wouldn't let go.


Johanna Garth said...

That's an interesting review. I found this book magical (no pun intended) but part of what I liked about it is the language inspired me to spin all my own stories in my head as I was reading it. Weird, right!? But maybe it's the same thing you didn't like about it, but from a different angle.

Unknown said...

Interesting and fair review my dear. Don't think I could hang with the present tense. Perhaps one day...
Must go. Children screaming. NOw it's my turn.
~Just Jill

karastewart said...

Present tense is one of my pet peeves. Annoys the heck out of me. In books and especially when newscasters do it (when the even referenced has already happened)! Screeching chalk on a blackboard . . .

Unknown said...

Great review. Notice you have not seen mine, the language was beautiful but that does not make a book, it is only part of it. It was far from what the hype sold it to be and I was sorely disappointed. I do not mind the tense even, heck I like head hopping in fact, but... it as so wishy washy and filled with TO much promise!

Alison DeLuca said...

I really have a tough time with it, Kara. There are very few books I can read in the present tense!

Kriss, I haven't read your review, but it sounds like we felt the same way. Going to Google it now!

Sarah Allen said...

Fabulous, fabulous review. I think you've put your finger exactly on why I loved this book and why I didn't. I love what you say about needing to read The Stand :) I know just what you mean!

Sarah Allen
(From Sarah With Joy)