The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern


“You step into a bright, open courtyard surrounded by striped tents.
Curving pathways along the perimeter lead away from the courtyard, turning into unseen mysteries dotted with twinkling lights.
There are vendors traversing the crowd around you, selling refreshments and oddities, creations flavored with vanilla and honey, chocolate and cinnamon.
A contortionist in a sparkling black costume twists on a platform nearby, bending her body into impossible shapes.
A juggler tosses globes of black and white and silver high into the air, where they seem to hover before falling again into his hands, his attentive spectators applauding.
All bathed in glowing light.
The light emanates from a large bonfire in the center of the courtyard.
As you walk closer, you can see that it sits in a wide black iron cauldron, balanced on a number of clawed feet. Where the rim of a cauldron would be, it breaks into long strips of curling iron, as though it has been melted and pulled apart like taffy. The curling iron continues up until it curls back into itself, weaving in and out amongst the other curls, giving it the cage-like effect. The flames are visible in the gaps between and rising slightly above. They are obscured only at the bottom, so it is impossible to tell what is burning, if it is wood or coal or something else entirely.
The flames are not yellow or orange, but white as snow as they dance.”

Within these pages is a challenge set up for two young illusionists which is a test of endurance, not skill. “The one who survives is the victor…the winner lives, the loser dies. That’s how the game ends.”

Unless the two follow a different path, taking their own desires into consideration.

Hector chooses his daughter, Clara, and Alexander chooses the boy, Marco, and these children are ‘bound’ to each other with rings which melt into their fingers. With these rings, they have become pawns much like chess pieces on a board. They do not know of each other’s existence at first, and when they do meet, they fall deeply and terribly in love.

Is there any other way to fall in love but to sacrifice everything for it? To lose oneself in the possibilities? For life without the one you love would surely be worse than being the loser in such a game. Perhaps in a competition, emerging as victor is not the most important conclusion to a game. Perhaps it is coming away with what you deem most valuable.

The night circus is an illustration of life, I think, told in an incredibly imaginative way. I loved the black and white circus tents which appear only at night, the rêveurs who follow it wearing their scarves of red, the stories of the contortionist, and the illusionists, and the twins named Poppet and Widget. (Because of the former, I had to place my Little Red Poppet in the picture with the book; clearly she could belong to the circus with her red cloak, ruffled collar, and winsome spirit.)

There is a burning cauldron set upon spirals of white and black, an Ice Garden with frosty leaves, caramel described more deliciously than I can record it here, described as if I could taste it on the page.

Yet as wonderful and magical as a circus can be, there is an element of danger under its tents. Nothing is certain, and much of what goes on is an illusion of beauty. Of skill. Of strength. So who controls us? Are we in charge of our own destiny? Is there a “magician” who causes us to do his bidding?  And most importantly, what happens when we are tired of carrying it all on our own shoulders? Perhaps jumping into the burning cauldron, with its purifying flames, is indeed the only choice for those brave enough to choose their own fate.

Passages I loved:

~”People see what they wish to see. And in most cases, what they are told that they see.” (p. 28)

~”The past stays on you the way powdered sugar stays on your fingers. Some people can get rid of it but it’s still there, the events and things that pushed you to where you are now. I can…well, read isn’t the right word, but it’s not the right word for what Poppet does with the stars, either.” (p. 198)

~”I am tired of trying to hold things together that cannot be held,” Celia says when he approaches her. “Trying to control what cannot be controlled. I am tired of denying myself what I want for fear of breaking things I cannot fix. They will break no matter what we do.” (p. 295)

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35 thoughts on “The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern”

  1. Just finished the book last night. LOVED it. Saving my review until first part of the week because of other plans but can't wait to post/talk about it. What a lovely book. I picked up the audio version from the library tonight because I love Jim Dale's narration. I think I'm going to start “re-reading” it tomorrow via the audio book.

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  2. Carl, I loved it, too, and re-reading it almost seems a necessary “task”. Not just for the beauty of the language, nor her imagination, but for all the pieces of the story which I long to fit together more perfectly. I'm afraid my review doesn't quite cover what I'm thinking; my thoughts are such a juxtoposition of sensory and elusive images. Indeed, it is a marvelous book. I'm looking forward to reading your thoughts.

    And, the poppet brought back happy memories of RIPs gone past. 😉

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  3. Yes, I thought the same thing when I read “Poppet”. So I went out and bought myself a Halloweeny reading Poppet today! 🙂

    I don't think this is going to be an easy book to review. But it will be worth it. I have decided that I desperately want a book of Herr Theisen's thoughts on the circus and collected stories from others.

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  4. I listened to the audio last winter (finished in early January) and LOVED the book and Jim Dale! And, yes, this would make a marvelous film. One of my favorite passages is about the boat on a sea of books. And as I mentioned to friend, the story reminded me a bit of Dandelion Wine. Definitely need to read that one again!

    If you haven't already, go to my review and listen to Jim Dale read a portion of the story. He is amazing!

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  5. I remember the boat on a sea of books…what images Erin created for us! It's funny that you say it reminded you of Bradbury's Dandelion Wine because it reminded me of his book Something Wicked This Way Comes. But not so much that I wasn't enchanted on every single page.

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  6. I have hesitated over this book many times and haven't bought it yet. I love how innovative and creative it sounds, but given the choice I quite like a plot and the critical reviews I've read have scored it low on that element. But I haven't completely made my mind up, and I may well be swayed towards enthusiasm yet!

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  7. It is very much not a typical fantasy, so that might help. It has a historic bent with a nostalgic feel. Although they are very different, if you enjoyed movies like The Illusionist or The Prestige it might give you an idea of at least part of what this book is like.

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  8. I am so remiss in not discussing the timeframe in this novel, how the circus never grew old, and how we stayed mostly on 1901-2. In fact, after reading Litlove's most excellent post on what to include in a good book review I realize I mostly 'major in the minors'.I fall prey far too easily to giving a brief capture of the novel and my own reaction. I mean, does any one really care whether I like the book or not? Deeper things than that ought to be said.

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  9. Loved this book so much. I liked the way it seemed only a bit magical at first, almost normal, before Morgenstern really let go. The darkness of it worked wonderfully well.

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  10. Litlove, it is so innovative and creative. I normally opt for plot too, and this book is not without one, but I suggest it for the imagery. For the mood created. For the magical world unlike any other.

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  11. You are killing me with your post – making this book sound so irresistible! I definitely have to get a copy and read it before the year ends. It just sounds so good! Thanks, Bellezza!

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  12. Wonderful review, which reflects the apparent magic of this story, and which led to much discussion and excitement in the comments. I'd LOVE to read this book!

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  13. I agree! Often books with a circus theme can turn so dark and almost evil; this remained magical, and somehow almost lovely, throughout. Despite its sorrows, which I found to be handled tenderly by the author.

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  14. Nadia, now is the perfect time to read it. Not that I'm pressuring you or anything. But, I do think you'd love the autumnal feel of it for this time of year. It's so good, and I'd love to read your reaction.

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  15. Suko, I'm sure you'd love it as much as those of us who have read it do. Now I'm tempted to listen to it read as Carl and Lesley have suggested. We could do that in the car, couldn't we? 🙂

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  16. “in a twisted way appeals to me”…you crack me up. After reading your review of The Barnum Circus I can't tell if they're similar; a difference seems to be that your book is more plot driven, aside from being a collection of shirt stories. But the circus theme prevails, and that's always an interesting one to me. I remember being a child and loving Toby Tyler and The Circus, for which I had to pay a terrible fine as it was lost for about six months. Anyway, the mood of circus books is appealing, even in Gruen's Water For Elephants which had a horrible man in it. But, a fabulous ending!

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  17. I loved this book, too. The writing was just perfect, which made up for the fact that the characters (aside from the circus itself) weren't as developed as they could have been.

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  18. I have heard such differing reviews about this book – from a number of people who's opinions I really respect so i'm going to have to read it just to see which side of the fence I happen to fall on!
    Thanks for the review – it's very intriguing.
    Lynn 😀

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