I still remember my very first trip to the circus. It was Barnum & Bailey’s Greatest Show on Earth, and on the car ride there I was so excited I could hardly sit still. Once we arrived and the show started, however, I was too mesmerized to fidget. There was something spellbinding about the parade of spangled performers, the bright lights, and the roar of the lions and tigers. I felt like I’d been transported to another world, and I couldn’t imagine a more amazing show.
Today, though, having just finished The Night Circus, I realize Barnum & Bailey have got nothing on the Cirque de Rêves, which translates to “Circus of Dreams” and is, quite literally, magical. The circus is powered by Celia and Marco, two young magicians pitted against one another by their guardians, and serves as the venue for their magical battle royale. The two enchanters conjure marvels to populate the circus’ many tents, attempting to outdo one another with increasingly spectacular displays.
These displays are the secret to The Night Circus’ success as a novel. The plot leaves much to be desired, and the romance that eventually develops between Celia and Marco is tepid at best, but the circus itself is genius.
There is something beautifully dreamlike about the whimsical Cirque des Rêves, which appears unexpectedly, and only at night. Everything in the circus, from the tents to the costumes to the enormous clock that marks the fairway entrance, is colored in shades of black, white, and gray. Rather than a single big-top with bright lights and a ringmaster, the circus consists of countless tents of various sizes among which patrons can wander at will. Each tent holds a different attraction, some of which are standard – acrobats, contortionists, animals – and some of which are much more unusual.
The unusual attractions are the wonders created by Celia and Marco, and they’re stunning in their originality. There’s a Pool of Tears into which one can literally release one’s worries; a living carousel that meanders throughout the entirety of the circus; a tree lit with wishes that can only be found by those who need it; and much, much more. Reading about them was a delight, and I found myself yearning for the circus to exist for real so I could experience it as the patrons in the book did.
As much as I loved the Cirque des Rêves and all the marvels it holds, the story surrounding the circus is pretty weak. The “high stakes” and “dangerous consequences” the synopsis claims come with the magical contest aren’t convincing, and the character development is practically non-existent. I was hoping that the romance between Celia and Marco would redeem their lack of personality, but I was out of luck. The young lovers are apart for the majority of the book, and when they do finally spend time together, they fall in love immediately, for no discernable reason and with no discernable passion.
When it comes down to it, though, I would still recommend The Night Circus. The book’s flaws are major, but I can’t deny how much I enjoyed being swept away by Morgenstern’s stunning imagination and the magic circus it inspired.