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  • Writer's pictureD.S. Ritter

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

The first time I read The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, I really enjoyed it, but I missed so much detail, concentrating on the surface story.  I was younger and I found the romance that develops between the main characters, Celia and Marco, the reason to keep reading.  Having read it again and being older, I find I’m way more interested in everything else.

A Synopsis

Unnoticed by the rest of the world, there is a game being played by two immortal magicians.  Each round, they choose a new board and pieces, but the stakes remain the same for the people involved; win, or disappear.

Celia Bowen is the daughter of one of the magicians, Marco is the ward of the other.  The venue; an incredible circus to capture the imagination.  To win, one of them must create the most spectacular attractions, Celia, from inside as the circus illusionist, and Marco from without, working as the producer’s assistant.

However, those closely involved with the circus begin to notice things are a bit odd, like, nobody seems to be aging, and the twins born on opening night seem to possess strange powers.

As with all things, eventually it begins to fall apart, and eventually, a sacrifice must be made.

Sensory Descriptions

Okay, so I’m sure this might be a little controversial, but what I think I love most about this novel are the descriptions.  The characters are good, the plot moves along, but what really, really snagged me, was all the sensory imagery.

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.

Morgenstern, Erin. The Night Circus (p. 165). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

I love how much attention Morgenstern pays to the details of each scene.  The circus is meant to be a feast for the senses, so she paints these elaborate scenes, making sure to include smells, sounds, minutia that would contribute to the experience, were you to actually witness it.

In the story, Herr Thiessen, a clock maker, falls in love with the circus and begins a journal about his experiences.  Eventually, some of his entries are published in newspapers around the world and his descriptions touch the hearts of other circus lovers.  This leads to the formation of Les Reves, the dreamers.  Followers of the circus who dress in monochrome with a touch of red to identify themselves.

I feel like this book is almost an extension of this idea.  The descriptions of the smells and sights and sounds are so rich, they make you wish you could be a follower and go to the night circus, or Chandresh’s famous Midnight Dinners.

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.

Morgenstern, Erin. The Night Circus (p. 56). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Two characters, Tara and Lainie Burgess even represent this attention to detail.

Their secret (which they will also discuss if properly intoxicated) is their highly developed skill of observation. They see every detail, notice the tiniest nuances. And if ever Tara were to miss something, Lainie would catch her oversight (and vice versa).

Morgenstern, Erin. The Night Circus (p. 58). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Colors, smells, tastes, the very sensory experience, nothing is ignored.  Morgenstern does her best to paint a detailed picture of the world in which the story takes place, and it serves to enhance everything, and in a way, drives home how much the loser of the magicians’ competition has to lose.

Clever Use of Second Person

Another thing I loved about this novel is the use of second-person perspective.  There are four different sections of story running all at once throughout this work.  We have the main story, which revolves around the competition between Celia and Marco, we have a boy named Bailey exploring the circus in his own, related plot, we have the writings of Herr Thiessen, and we have these beautifully-written second-person point of view vignettes sprinkled in.

The first time I read these vignettes, I thought they were just Morgenstern showing off the circus.  Second-person POV, for those not in the know, is not very commonly used and is generally hard to pull off well, because it tends to be the narrator talking to the reader, or describing what the reader is supposedly doing.  Confusing?  I know, but you know it when you see it.  Here’s an example from the book:

With your ticket in hand, you follow a continuous line of patrons into the circus, watching the rhythmic motion of the black-and-white clock as you wait.

Morgenstern, Erin. The Night Circus (p. 47). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

This is how all of the vignettes are written, and while normally this would bother the heck out of me, in this case, I find it to be a little bit genius, and here’s why; the circus is immortal, so these little scenes represent the idea that the circus still exists now, no matter when that now is.  The idea is that you could experience it, and that that is part of the narrative.  And it is more than just showing off, it gives us information about the fate of the circus and its occupants.  This part was particularly telling;

Reflected behind you there is a man in a bowler hat, though he appears in some mirrors and not in others. When you turn you cannot locate him in the room, though there are more patrons walking along with you than you had seen within the glass.

Morgenstern, Erin. The Night Circus (p. 163). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

But the vignettes do more than indicate to us what things are like after the story is finished: they serve to set the mood, or the stage, or to draw our attention or foreshadow something yet to come.  Morgenstern just uses this device so well and so smartly, and these little bits are a joy to read because they’re full of that rich description that makes the experiences so enjoyable and immersing.  Second person is just so hard to use and she does it so very well here, it kind of blew my mind.

Use of Secondary Characters

Marco and Celia are certainly the center of attention in this novel, but I’ve found the secondary characters incredibly interesting.  Poor Chandresh, slowly losing his mind, becoming more and more addled by the impossibility of the circus and the magic Marco weaves to try to keep him steady.

Tsukiko, a mysterious Japanese contortionist with a past just as full of secrets, connecting her to the two immortal magicians.

“We are fish in a bowl, dear,” Tsukiko tells her, cigarette holder dangling precariously from her lips. “Very carefully monitored fish. Watched from all angles. If one of us floats to the top, it was not accidental. And if it was an accident, I worry that the watchers are not as careful as they should be.”

Morgenstern, Erin. The Night Circus (p. 188). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

The sad, desperate love of Isobelle the fortuneteller, which leads to tragedy, somewhat foiled by the beautiful love and admiration Herr Thiessen has for Celia and the circus experience.

Almost everyone ends up with a story that is beautiful and sad.  The only ones saved from most of the heartbreak are Poppet and Widget, the twins born on opening night, and Bailey, a boy from Massachusetts who becomes entangled in the circus much later.

All these little narratives weave together to create something that’s rich and bitter sweet.

There are a few spots where the development of the side stories slow down the overarching narrative, but these slow spots are fairly minimal and tend to be followed by something more interesting.  Tara’s rather expositive meeting with Mr. Barris leads to her short talk with A. H., leading to her subsequent “suicide.”  And thus, the circus begins to unravel.

The Lovers

The love story avoids a lot of the traditional cliches.  Marco and Celia don’t fall in love at first sight, or hate each other before falling in love, despite being in competition.  While it’s true that Celia starts to feel attraction to Marco before she even knows who he is, she gets insight into his person through the exhibits he creates for the circus.  Each new tent seems to contain a little bit of the creators.

“I can feel it,” he says. “It is like knowing that a storm is coming, the shift in the air around it. As soon as I walked into the tent I could sense it, and it is stronger closer to the tree itself. I am not certain it would be perceptible if one were unfamiliar with such sensation.”

Morgenstern, Erin. The Night Circus (p. 128). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Despite Marco knowing Celia’s identity early, there’s a refreshing equality and even a complexity to their relationship that you don’t always get these days.  Both are discouraged from pursuing their relationship by the dueling magicians, but it seems the heart wants what it will want. 

Before the two get together, however, they each have their own relationships, Marco with Isobelle and Celia, to an extent, with Herr Thiessen.

The ending might not be palpable to some, but I liked it, though I don’t require all good endings to be, well, completely good.


Bitter sweet and well-constructed is how I would describe The Night Circus.  It might not be the taste of everyone, but I found it relaxing, engrossing and endearing.  As I mentioned, it has its slow points, but they’re well worth it.  Plus, it’s really nice to find a book that uses description so well in an age where many would recommend cutting it.  In this case, you really couldn’t without weakening the experience.

The book is far from perfect, but it is still really enjoyable for what it does well.

You spend your last moments at the circus as you wish, for it is your time and yours alone. But before long, it is time for Le Cirque des Rêves to close, at least for the time being.

Morgenstern, Erin. The Night Circus (p. 385). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

You think, as you walk away from Le Cirque des Rêves and into the creeping dawn, that you felt more awake within the confines of the circus. You are no longer quite certain which side of the fence is the dream.

Morgenstern, Erin. The Night Circus (p. 390). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

What's it Like?

Take the wonder and surrealism of Little Nemo and smash it up with The Prestige and you might get something similar.

Bechdel Test: Pass

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