After years of hesitation, I finally broke down and picked up The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. I was hooked after perusing a copy in my local Barnes & Noble recently, but no way was I paying $15 for a book. Instead, I managed to find it used on Half.com for around $2.50–pretty amazing, especially considering that my copy looks and feels almost new. Sometimes used books even have notes written throughout, which I actually find fun.
Anyway, what prompted me to read it was actually a pin I found on Pinterest, which listed must-reads for American Horror Story fans. I’m always hungry for more AHS, especially since season four is now over. Night Circus did, in fact, offer elements of the FX horror series. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is also on the list, which I plan on tackling soon.
I always download samples on my Nook before I commit to any book, although I’ve tired of my eReader and really do prefer actual books in my hands. Besides that nifty feature–which isn’t always reliable–my Nook is great for games, but reading is out.
I always enjoying writing about the books I read, and this novel was a lot of fun. Since I’ve been reading mostly non-fiction (books about animal cognition; see The Genius of Dogs and The Secret Life of Lobsters), I was craving something that could whisk me away with sensual language and imagery, along with a magical storyline that could suspend my disbelief. Yes, The Night Circus was my ticket: with dark elements of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes (an obvious one, huh?), and with all the otherworldly charm of the Harry Potter series, the novel is composed of short chapters, some of which could work narratively on their own as vignettes.
Many passages are invested in sound and touch: “Hesitantly he puts a hand out to touch the beads, which are smooth and cold, and he finds that his arm slips through them easily, that they part like water or long grass. The beads clatter as the strands hit one another, and the sound that echoes in the dark space sounds like rain” (214). Whether we’re reading tarot cards by the fire or standing in the rain with the elegant and understated Celia, we can always feel the environment Morgenstern draws for us.
What also struck me is that some chapters are written in the second person, to remind us that we’re spectators and circus-goers as we read along. I was a bit thrown by this at first since it feels overly deliberate, but I think the style works for Morgenstern.
Of course, I’m all about descriptions of delicious and decadent food, the kind of plates and culinary creations I’ll probably never see in my lifetime: “Dish after dish is brought to the table, some easily identifiable as quail or rabbit or lamb, served on banana leaves or baked in apples or garnished with brandy-soaked cherries. Other courses are more enigmatic, concealed in sweet sauces or spiced soups; unidentifiable meats hidden in pastries and glazes” (70).
Morgenstern’s description of the desserts is amazing: “The desserts are always astonishing. Confections deliriously executed in chocolate and butterscotch, berries bursting with creams and liqueurs. Cakes layered to impossible heights, pastries lighter than air. Figs that drip with honey, sugar blown into curls and flowers. Often diners remark that they are too pretty, too impressive to eat, but they always find a way to manage” (71). I’m struck by the use of the word “delirious” here, especially in a scene that involves food. This means that the chefs created these dishes “in a state of wild excitement or ecstasy.” I’ve always understood that when one experiences true ecstasy, it entails the sense that you have left your body. I think this passage serves as a nice reminder that creating food is an art form and that we are meant to enjoy it.
In the chapter “Bedtime Stories,” Bailey discovers bottles that contain dreams or sensory experiences: As he peers inside he smells the smoke of a roaring fire, and a hint of snow and roasting chestnuts . . . There is the aroma of mulled wine and sugared candy, peppermint and pipe smoke. The crisp pine scene of a fir tree. The wax of dripping candles . . . It is dizzying and wonderful and disturbing (314-15). The theme of dreams also figures prominently throughout the novel. After Isobel reads Bailey’s cards, he feels a sense of regeneration and bravery that only Le Cirque des Rêves can incite: “In his dreams, he is a knight on horseback, carrying a silver sword, and it does not really seem that strange after all.” The influence of the night circus normalizes odd or out-of-place ideas or themes, hence rendering either all of us or none of us “different.” We see ourselves as we choose to, and the circus, in the darkness of night, makes that okay.
Each chapter is set in a different year and city, most of them European, which may feel disorienting for some readers. It’s not a chronological story, but it’s up to us to put the puzzle pieces together and work for it. Like so many other novels and films, Night Circus expertly weaves together several narratives so that we’re delighted when they cross paths and interact. The book is also written in present tense, which never wavers or fluctuates, giving the narrative a sense of immediacy.
The Stargazer ride is enchanting, Poppet and Widget are endearing, and I definitely used this scene to lull myself to sleep. What a lovely idea for a carnival ride? Just sit back and admire the stars. I’ve always been a fan of riding the carousal, as opposed to the fast and scary rides that prove so popular, and I do wish this was a real ride.
I found myself looking up the definition of particular words throughout most chapters. The chapter that contains the stargazing scene is entitled “Ailuromancy,” which is the practice of divination via cats’ movements. We seem to turn to animals or nature for spiritual guidance: observe how leaves fall, listen to the wind, look to the stars, or, in this case, watch your cat!
Indeed, like the pin said, this novel offers mild notes of AHS’s “Freak Show,” of course without the blood and gore–consider it G-rated, for sure. The performers of Le Cirque des Rêves know full well that they’re different, but they’re not “freaks,” per se. What I gathered from the season of “Freak Show” is that the biggest freaks are “poofs” as Maggie puts it, but Morgenstern’s characters are special, inspired, beautiful–transcending sexuality or the limitations of labels–so the reader may interpret them as gifted rather than social pariahs.
One correlation I did find interesting is the popular distrust of the fortune-teller: Maggie from AHS and Isobel from Night Circus. It seems that we can’t put much stock in someone who is paid to tell us wonderful things about our lives and our futures. Love, fortune, career…we’re suspicious if the news is good, but also if it’s bad. This archetype is apparently doomed. Does film or TV ever portray a fortune-teller or psychic in a positive light? Perhaps if they’re male? Maybe the show Psych works because the protagonist is a man who’s in fact faking it?
Le Cirque des Rêves opens only at night because it’s for dreamers; the Circus of Dreams celebrates what we do not and cannot know, and offers comfort in the absence of that knowledge. Herr Friedrick Thiessen warmly tells Celia, “I prefer to remain unenlightened, to better appreciate the dark” (240). Isobel’s enchanting cards speak if we listen, the night sky reminds us that we’re all stardust, and the circus renders us all crimson-robed rêveurs.