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The night circus [book club kit]
2012
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New York Times Review
LET me say at the outset that glamour and charm are notoriously difficult qualities to render on the page, and all those words like "mercury" and "lightning" and "ineffability" certainly apply, ditto "catching," "capturing" and "chasing." It may well be the case that we still hold "The Great Gatsby" in such high esteem because of those amazing parties to which none of us will ever be invited, and wouldn't have been in the 1920s, either. If glamour were easy, the entire fashion industry could do its thing on Sunday afternoons with a spool of thread and a few yards of gauze. Moreover, for the true geniuses of glamour, a spool of thread and a few yards of gauze are all it takes to make one feel that one is Marie Antoinette spinning around Versailles. For the rest of us, glamour is a sweaty struggle, rife with pricked thumbs, bulges and gaffes. This is why it is a risky business indeed to devote nearly 400 pages to a confection called le Cirque des Rêves, a circus that occurs at night (as opposed to what other sort of circus, by the way?) and is famous, apparently, for doing wild, magical, life-changing, impossible things. Like a magician, the writer must pull the rabbit from the hat, cut the lady in half, make the elephant disappear and so on. We long to be fooled. In "The Night Circus," her debut novel, Erin Morgenstern works hard to create just such a sense of magic, but there finally seems to be something too sensible about her sensibility to pull off the trick. The novel is - and it's an odd thing to say about a work of fiction - just too real to be believed. True magic is dangerous, and there is little of that sort of propulsive danger in these pages; where it does occur is surprising, and oddly marginalized. The setting is the late 19th and early 20th centuries in and around major world cities - New York, London, Paris, Boston and so on. The Cirque des Rêves is an entertainment that whirls through these cities, appearing suddenly, disappearing suddenly, filled with psychics and contortionists and elaborate rooms and labyrinths of great holographic intensity. People are overwhelmingly drawn to the circus. Some, known as "rêveurs," even go so far as to follow it from town to town dressed uniformly in black, white and red à la Diana Vreeland, maybe. Caught in the power vectors of the Cirque des Rêves are two special children, Marco and Celia, who grow to adulthood over the course of the novel. Both are orphans; both have been hypertrained by stern guardians in telekinetic and psychic powers; eventually, it is revealed that the two have been groomed since an early age to be each other's "opponents" in a contest of magical creation, of which the circus is the arena. The guardians have created this contest for what seems to be nothing but their own sense of power, and they are ruthless in seeing it through to the end: death for the loser. Celia grows to be an illusionist whose illusions aren't really illusions (she turns clothing into birds and can change the color of a fabric with her mind, among other powers); Marco can create entire worlds at will, invented environments of great beauty, simply by passing his hands over one's eyes. Eventually, of course, they meet, fall in love, defy their fate. Told this way, the echoes resound: "The Tempest " Angela Carter's "Nights at the Circus," any of Dickens's sensitive and beleaguered children, the HBO show "Carnivale," the brilliant Philip Pullman trilogy "His Dark Materials," with its tender adolescent pair, even "Romeo and Juliet," since these are star-crossed lovers raised by rival houses. However, in the execution, there is a curious lack of specificity, resulting in too many generic sentences like these: "The air itself is magical." "Every element of the circus blends together in a wonderful coalescence." "Candles glow in stained-glass sconces, casting dancing light over the party and its attendees." "The sign says Hall of Mirrors, but when you enter you find that it is more than a simple hall." We are, in other words, continually told how magical the circus and its denizens are without ever being truly surprised, entranced or beguiled. The aerialists without nets who appear here are not so different from what one could see every week when "De La Guarda" was in town, or still can at the illfated Broadway version of "Spiderman," for that matter. Rêveurs just sounds like a Frenchified way of saying "ravers," whose habits are similar; and what does "wonderful coalescence" mean? Ostensibly astonishing details, like "a dimly lit temple guarded by an albino Sphinx" escape me. Would that be a Sphinx painted white? The contest, when it gets up and running, never seems to gather force. "I've come to think of it more as a dual exhibition," Celia remarks at one point, and the book apparently agrees. Blood is shed and things burn, but the lovers remain curiously unmarked, untouched and unchanged. INDEED, the darkest and most engaging element in the novel is not the circus but the relationships between the children and their guardians, who resemble nothing so much as the kind of overattentive, hyper-achievement-oriented, controlling parents much decried in modern media. I felt, at times, that the text that perhaps most speaks to "The Night Circus" isn't "The Tempest" but "The Drama of the Gifted Child," got up in face paint and spangles. The peculiar imprisonment and constant education in isolation - a sort of early home schooling - that Marco's guardian imposes on him; the way Celia's father, before his death, repeatedly slices her fingers so she can "learn" to heal them with her mind, and breaks her wrist with a paperweight when she's not being quite magic enough: these are authentically dark, strongly imagined moments, the stuff that nightmares, if not dreams, are made of. I don't really know what "magical air" might be, but I can feel what it might be like to have your caretaker smash your wrist. Strangely, the two most powerful kinds of magic there are - the power of cruelty and the power of love - receive the least page time here, their pungency muffled in ice gardens, intricate clocks and floor-sweeping gowns that change color. The lovers duly, dully unite against a common foe (their parents, essentially) with nary a ripple of dissent, nor much of a tidal pull, between them. Magic without passion is pretty much a trip to Pier One: lots of shrink-wrapped candles. One wishes Morgenstern had spent less time on the special effects and more on the hauntingly unanswerable question that runs, more or less ignored, through these pages: Can children love who were never loved, only used as intellectual machines? What kind of magic reverses that spell? It's not as pretty a spectacle, but that's a story that grips the heart. The heroes have been groomed to be opponents in a magical contest, with death awaiting the loser. Stacey D'Erosmo's most recent novel is "The Sky Below."
Library Journal Review
Morgenstern's immersive debut novel, already an indie favorite, portrays life in the meticulously created and spectacularly magical Le Cirque des Reves. Behind the scenes of the secretive circus live many refugees from the plain world outside, including Celia and Marco, prisoners of their fathers' lethal competition to pit the world's best magicians against each other. (LJ 6/15/11) (c) Copyright 2011. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Publishers Weekly Review
A circus-Le Cirque des Reves-mysteriously appears at night, remains open only during hours of darkness, and then just as mysteriously disappears. But unknown to its visitors, the circus is really a venue for a dangerous game between two talented young illusionists whose magic is real. Bound to each other by their masters, Celia and Marco are forced to challenge each other to increasingly dangerous feats and displays of sorcery. But the real challenges come when respect and love blooms between them. Morgenstern's wonderful novel is made all the more enchanting by top-notch narration from the incomparable Jim Dale. The voices he creates add depth and nuance to the book's characters. And while some of those voices may echo his work on the Harry Potter series, they are nonetheless perfectly suited to Morgenstern's characters. Mesmerizing from the very start, this audio version will enchant listeners. A Doubleday hardcover. (Sept.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
School Library Journal Review
Le Cirque des Reves appears without warning on the outskirts of cities around the world. Only open at night, it is filled with magic and theater, each tent a sensory experience, manipulated and sustained by two young people locked in a mysterious competition. (Sept.) (c) Copyright 2011. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
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