Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

The Night Circus 
by Erin Morgenstern

Reading level: Adult
Hardcover: 400 pages
Publisher: Doubleday (2011)
ISBN-13: 978-0385534635

I want it made perfectly clear that The Night Circus is not a children's book. Nor is it middle grade fiction or a young adult novel. It may fit into a crossover category of its own, but for the most part its intended audience is that with some level of maturity. That is not to say that the content is inappropriate---it just isn't going to naturally appeal to children much more than say, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

So why then, am I including this book in my KidBook blog?
The Night Circus has received more attention than any book in some time, with reviewers touting it as the next Harry Potter or the next Twilight. For that reason alone I find it worthwhile to provide a brief review as it relates to the new-found hunger for the next big thing in children's literature. 

Put simply: Magic exists. In youth, Marco and Celia are apprenticed separately to two illusionists who have conflicting approaches to doing and teaching magic. A game is devised to exhibit and demonstrate one approach over the other, and Marco and Celia find themselves bound to each other unwillingly in a magic match that will span their lives until one is declared the victor. They do not know how or when one wins, only that the arena is Le Cirque des Réves. As the game progresses, it becomes clear that the fate of the circus and those connected to it is entwined in the destiny and evolving relationship of the two competitors. 

Erin Morgenstern's debut novel is quite an accomplishment. Dark, lyrical, with atmosphere that is equal parts evocative and vague. Dream-like is the only way I can put my experience reading it. Beautiful, dazzling, imaginative, engrossing, enchanting, romantic. Intoxicating. Timeless. The characters feel real. Believable. Relatable. Lovable. Mysterious.

Ebbing and flowing between split perspectives and timelines, the story presents itself as a series of connected vignettes that slowly build in tandem to the conclusion. The constant switching from place, time, and character keeps you enraptured from beginning to end--always moving on to the next glimpse just as it gets interesting. Fortunately, with most chapters around five pages, you soon return seamlessly back to where you left off of previous narratives.

The romance in the book is slow building. Gentle is a good descriptor for it. It's quite restrained and not at all risque. In all, it is classy in its conservatism. No graphic descriptions, just elegant and refined passion between two young lovers.  

As for the circus itself (a character in its own right): there's so much there to fall into (the sights, the sounds, the smells, the textures) and yet still never enough to truly grasp everything with clarity and full understanding. While it may frustrate some that so many workings within the circus remain unexplained (that carousel, for example), that is what makes the book so successful. To reveal all the wonders of the circus with a tangible, comprehensible, scientific explanation is to kill its magic. As readers we are left as mystified as the attendees of the circus, marveling at the spectacles without truly learning their secrets. Our own imagination is a key ingredient to the enjoyment of the story. We are allowed space to dream and imagine and experience. And while we have some vague hints about how some things might work within the logic of this magical world, we never fully see behind the curtain.  The unsolved mysteries preserve the fantasticalness of our experience and invites us to come back to relive it in our minds again and again. 

We may not possess a ticket to Le Cirque des Réves, but we can return as true rêveurs any time we like-- with the simple turn of a page.

In a literary arena where stories are competing to be the next big book for kids, I would rather The Night Circus be in the hands of young people than Twilight. Yes, it is a mature romantic fable, much more like Romeo & Juliet than Harry Potter. But where Twilight is essentially a purely indulgent story about lusting after a rebel man/boy with fangs and giving up all you are to be with him (for no discernable reason), The Night Circus offers a more poetic and affecting tale of a growing bond and chemistry between two people who fall in love with each other because they are complimentary--because they respect, admire, and inspire wonders within the other person. These are values that make romance morally justifiable, transcending a mere guilty pleasure for forbidden lust.

There is satisfying tension because these characters can't be together---but should be together.  We route for Celia and Marco because they care for one another deeply, relate to each other sensitively, and who by all accounts WOULD be together if it weren't for some needless competition in which they are more pawns than players. Their love represents an archetype to aspire to in a real-world relationship: They are the perfect harmonious match-- their lives, and the lives of those around them, are made more magical when they are together.

If a young person can embrace this kind of beautiful idea about what romantic love can and should be, all the better for the world. We ought to have better standards not just for love in literature, but for love as we live and experience it in our own lives.

But then again...maybe I'm just a dreamer.


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