When I started reading The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern, in November I didn’t know the name of this blog or what it would look like. But I did know this would be a great choice my first review. Why? Besides being written by a Smithie and combining several of our favorite literary themes and genres. I also was intrigued by the comparison to Harry Potter.
I see where the Wall Street Journal was going when they categorized these books together. Morgenstern received the holy grail of publishing advances with six figures from Double Day: an almost unheard of amount for a first novel. The novel also, especially in the beginning, centers around the secret magical training of two children, Celia and Marco, though it is more often referred to as illusion or manipulation.
Still, for me the comparison stopped at these basic similarities. The book seemed more closely related to fellow young adult blockbuster series The Hunger Games. Marco and Celia are raised for the sole purpose of a magical competition they have no choice but to participate in. The novel’s setting, the glamorous magic circus, was created for and exits only to serve the competition, similar to the Arena in Hunger Games. The questioned that ran through my mind throughout this book is what was the actual purpose of the competition?
The central issue of the novel, one present in all three, is control. Marco and Celia are in ways completely controlled by their guardians and the competition. They physically can’t abandon the game, yet they can’t choose to win or lose because they don’t know the rules. However, the crux of the competition is for each to use their magical skills to exert control over the setting, both audiences and performers, and at times over each other.
While these similarities to both hugely successful fiction franchises no doubt are part of the reason behind this debut novel’s wide readership, Night Circus is more complex than either. It didn’t read as YA to me. Structurally, it jumps forward and backwards through time and weaving together multiple points of view – including the best use I’ve second person I’ve ever read. Thematically, there is no good or evil. This is no Harry Potter where the reader is firmly on the side of Dumbledore and against Voldermort. There isn’t even the popularity contest of choosing Peta or Gayle of belonging to Team Edward versus Team Jacob. You have to root for both Celia and Marco.
In my mind, Morgenstern accomplished a lot by presenting the theme of asserting independence in a world controlled by adults in a new and complicated way. The plot lagged at times, but I remained captivated by the characters and delighted by the circus descriptions. I wouldn’t expect any less from a Smith College graduate.
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