The very first word the reader encounters in Erin Morgenstern’s debut novel, The Night Circus, is “anticipation,” the title of the prologue. This seems apt, given that cultivating anticipation is the book’s apparent raison d’être. Take the rest of the prologue: Of the titular circus, we immediately learn that it “arrives without warning.” It’s preceded by no announcement, heralded by no advertisement, “simply there, when yesterday it was not.” Its sprawling tents are done up in black-and-white stripes, a black sign posted on the elaborate enclosure, proclaiming (in white lettering, of course): “Opens at Nightfall, Closes at Dawn.” The crowd, gathered suddenly as if summoned by some magic spell, marvels at the sight; the reader, included among the throng and addressed as “you,” awaits the opening. Finally the lights begin to sparkle, igniting, seemingly at random, until you make out the shining invitation: Le Cirque des Rêves. And now, you are told, you may enter.
And what do you find on entering? What is it you have been primed to anticipate?
As far as the circus is concerned, there are, within the tents, acts of startling beauty, miraculous feats designed to fill you with awe, to make you oooh and aaah. Look! A contortionist folding herself into a tiny glass box. And there! A magician transforming books into ravens. Now here! A room filled with clouds. Another room filled with ice rendered into a lush garden. The circus is a veritable cornucopia of sights and sounds and appetizing scents. It is a fantasia, a fairy tale writ large and come to life.
As far as The Night Circus is concerned, it’s a predictable love story by way of a baffling revenge story. It begins in 1873, when the renowned magician Prospero the Enchanter (off-stage name: Hector Bowen) finds his five-year-old daughter Celia on the doorstep of his dressing room. The girl’s mother, a former lover abandoned by Propero, has pinned her suicide note to Celia’s coat. The magician is displeased to see the frightened child until he notes that her distress causes a teacup to shatter. When the girl then manages, without a single movement, to reform the destroyed cup, which now sits “complete once more, soft swirls of steam rising into the air,” Prospero concedes that she “might be interesting.” Several months later, Prospero is visited by a man clad in a gray suit. Celia’s skills—she’s able to levitate a watch, break it, put it back together—are promptly showcased, but the man in gray is unimpressed: “I could take any child off the street and teach them as much,” he maintains. Prospero immediately understands this as an invitation, offering his daughter as a contestant in an apparently dangerous game. Offer accepted by the man in gray, Celia is bound to the mysterious contest, a scar indelibly burned onto her ring finger. Soon after this, the man in gray selects a young orphan as his player. The boy, Marco, undergoes rigorous training, spending his days in the study of magic, while, elsewhere, Celia too is prepared, with cruel efficiency, for the battle.
Some 10 years later, Marco is apprenticed to Chandresh Christophe Lefèvre, a theatrical producer enamored of lavish spectacles. Chandresh has gathered together a group of people to help him design an extravagant circus:
“More than a circus, really, like no circus anyone has ever seen. Not a single large tent but a multitude of tents, each with a particular exhibition. No elephants or clowns. No, something more refined than that. Nothing commonplace. This will be different, this will be an utterly unique experience, a feast for the senses. Theatrics sans theater, an immersive entertainment.”
This circus, Marco knows, will be the stage on which the competition to which he, like Celia, has been bound.
Acts for the circus are auditioned. On the day of the tryouts for illusionists, Marco comes face to face with Celia, who has become impossibly beautiful and enchanting. She too recognizes the circus as part of the competition, but though Marco immediately identifies her as his rival, Celia remains unaware of his identity a while longer. The two provide various attractions for the circus, building on and responding to each other’s work, and (of course!) falling in love. Their feelings pose a problem not only for the two of them, given the apparently lethal stakes of the game to which they have been committed, but for all those connected to the circus. In the meantime, in 1902, an American boy named Bailey is dreaming of escaping his life on his parents’ apple farm when the circus sets down in his town. (The novel’s short sections are carefully labeled according to time and place, but despite this apparent dedication to chronology, it’s bafflingly narrated in the present tense.)
Given that Bailey’s story intercuts the story of the circus’s development and the growing love between Celia and Marco, there can be little doubt that Bailey will play a key role in the resolution, which in itself is never really doubtful. The Night Circus isn’t the sort of book to leave its lovers sundered or its readers uncertain about true love. Ultimately, the novel is less about the supernatural or magic and far more about a particular type of romance. (That the film rights have been bought by Summit Entertainment, the producers of the Twilight movies—a fact repeatedly touted in the publicity materials—should give you some fair sense of the specific type.) Leaving the matter of whether the illusions of the sort perfected by Celia and Marco are a matter of something mystical and inborn or simply the result of extensive practice frustratingly vague, The Night Circus concerns itself instead with the enchantment of forbidden love. But Marco and Celia are no Romeo and Juliet; we know they are mad for each other, because we are told they are. Their passion is a sleight-of-hand.
Morgenstern, who’s also an artist, is proficient with the novel’s visuals, and these visuals handily dress up an otherwise predictable tale. The Night Circus builds anticipation, but like most magic acts, it relies too much on distraction, on the willful suspension of disbelief. Its spell is dependent on the reader’s need to be enchanted. If the circus means to make the visitor “no longer certain which side of the fence is the dream,” it’s mostly because the visitor is an inveterate dreamer.
Erin Morgenstern The Night Circus will be released on September 13 by Doubleday. To purchase it, click here.