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The Night Circus - Erin Morgenstern I have read and enjoyed all the Harry Potter books. In a way, I consider them my friends. The Night Circus is no Harry Potter, despite the marketing dreams of Doubleday management.

It is a fantastical battle/love story, set at the turn of the 20th century, that summons the imagery and characterizations of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The primary thrust here is the battle. Two children are chosen as stand-ins for an ages-old competition between two mysterious and seemingly immortal wizard-types. One might see in this a contemporary commentary on the history of civilization sending young people off to die for foolish reasons. But I do not really think that was the intent. The two are Marco, plucked from an orphanage by the grey-suited man (I found myself always thinking The Man in the Yellow Hat for some reason) and Celia, the daughter of a magician stage-named Prospero. If that sounds a bit familiar it is because, in The Tempest, Prospero is the main character. Our version seems to feel a compulsion to call his daughter, Celia, by the name Miranda, the name of Prospero’s daughter in the elder work, but she resists. We must presume the author is winking and nodding and urging us to brush up our Shakespeare.

Our Prospero, off-stage-named Hector Bowen, and the never fully-named grey-suited character have staged this contest many times before. These two think little of manipulating actual people for their dubious pleasures. The venue is to be the circus, and the rules are inscrutable. The two children are trained in the magic arts by their respective elders for their entire youth, preparing them for a competition to prove whose pet is superior. They eventually meet and fall in love, of course, which complicates things. Overall, I thought this was a pretty nifty notion. I only wish Morgenstern had paid more attention to the romance between these two and was less enamored of her own compulsion to engage in feats of literary legerdemain. I found her scenes with the two very effective.

The book is rife with descriptive smoke and mirrors, a bit too much so. OK, way too much so. I cannot recall reading a book that paid quite so much obvious attention to its color palette. I know that might make it sound pretentious, but I think that works rather well here, to a point. I was reminded of the Langella Dracula production on Broadway more than a few years back. The entire stage was monochromatic, which made the red flower sitting in a vase stand out like a beacon. Ditto here. With everything portrayed in black, white, and shades between, whenever color emerges it catches the eye. It is not too hard to find the place from which this emanates.
In an interview at Comic-Con in San Diego…Morgenstern, 33, who also is a painter, told USA TODAY that before she ever had characters, she visualized the colorful performers and contrasting black and white tones of the tents and circus setting.
"I paint very messy. I throw paint around," says Morgenstern, who now lives in Boston. "So when I let myself do the same sort of thing with my writing, and I would just write and write and write and revise, that's when I found my rhythm in writing." (http://www.usatoday.com/life/books/news/2011-07-25-erin-morgenstern-night-circus_n.htm)
What is the coloring supposed to indicate? What is she saying here? I do not know, but it does stand out. And that is an indicator of a potential problem. If there is a technique being used so loudly that serves little clear purpose, then why is it being used?

A Tarot motif also figures throughout, so those of you who are not seers or special readers, start your search engines to suss out what each of the many mentioned cards might portend. And set your search for the Marseilles deck. Morgenstern uses her tarot references to add info about her characters, and a tarot-reading seer to grease those wheels. This one is a knight. That one is a magician. Usually the references are pretty obvious, so, ultimately, with an exception here or there, the cards as indicators of character do not really add much. And raise your hands, anyone who thinks a seer might overlook something close to home.

Dreams figure large – the gigantic clock commissioned for the circus is named Wunschtraum which translated from the German to “Pipe Dream.” The proper name of the circus, Le Cirques de Reve, translates to the “Circus of Dreams” and followers of the circus are called reveurs, or dreamers. There is a host of other references to and uses of the dreaming motif but I will not list them all here.

Some of Morgenstern’s subsidiary characters were fun. The Murray twins, red-haired (Weasleyan?) spawn of big-cat tamers are fun, both possessed with powers, and performers who charmingly use kittens in their act. How could you not love characters named Widget and Poppett? Poppet in particular gets a bit more stage time, and should have gotten even more.

A young man named Bailey (I couldn’t decide if this was more for the reference to Barnum and Bailey or to George Bailey, as this pure-hearted lad was living a dull life and yearned for more) is engaging and give us another character to root for. But again, not nearly enough time is given him.

The two wizards remain mostly discorporate. Celia’s father is actively seeking a way out of the material world, and the man in the grey suit maintained his cipher-hood throughout. They sneak and lurk a lot but rarely seem to do any actual harm, with one obvious exception involving a knife.

Morgenstern was clearly so in love with all her magic tricks that she lost focus. What is it that engages readers, makes us care? It is characters. We can certainly enjoy and appreciate beautiful descriptions and thrill at the qualities with which she imbues her world. There is a huge amount of creativity on display here. Lots of smoke and mirrors (literally), lots of bright lights, misdirections, shiny objects, many pretty pictures, and a cauldron-full of magic. I am sure that in the right hands, when this is made into a major motion picture (rights have already been bought) there will be Oscar opportunities aplenty for art directors, costume and makeup designers, and special effects pros. But I felt that there was twenty pounds of sizzle here for a two ounce steak. The emphasis was all on the tricks, the cleverness, the magic and not nearly enough on the core love story. Morgenstern clearly can make her characters breathe. She does that here, but too infrequently to keep us from getting distracted by the sparkly things. I had the impression that she was intent on throwing into her brew-pot every idea that she could get away with. For example, it wasn’t enough for her to hew to her core Tempest imagery, with the captured-in-a-tree piece, which certainly works in the story. She felt a need to embellish by dragging Merlin in as well. Please, enough already. We got the picture. You do not have to color it in for us.

Pick your motifs, Tarot, Tempest, rings, color scheme, tree/vine imagery, time, star-crossed love, mirrors, books and reading. Go ahead, follow one, two , three, four, five. In moderation there is so much here to like, but in excess it overwhelms and detracts. Save a few tricks for the next volume, if there is to be one. Rowling paced herself and offered a useful model to follow. Morgenstern, as she does with paint, has done with words. She throws lots of stuff up there and then revises and revises. She reports that she had to do a lot of revision, which makes me wonder what this looked like when it was first submitted. That it emerged in all its finery, but lacking in sufficient attention to the characters represents, I expect, a problem with editing. Couldn’t someone have told Erin, hey, tone back the jazz and focus on the tune? Or maybe someone did and she did not comply. Can’t say. Don’t know.

There was a chapter near the end, Stories, that was so cloying and pretentious that it made me gag. Not a great way to head towards the finish line.

I know the overall timbre of this review is critical. But I need to add in here that The Night Circus remains an engaging, interesting read, and I enjoyed it. My gripe is that it could have been sooooo much better with a good spell of discipline. Still this is an impressive first novel. Maybe in her next work, the bubbling talent on display here can be harnessed to concoct a more effective, more focused book. A guy can dream.

PS

I take issue with the book’s cover design, which makes it appear that the circus is a toy in the hand of a particular significant character. This is not the case. The circus venue is agreed to by the two god-like characters, and it is kept magical by a host of contributors. No single hand controls all, as the cover suggests. The UK cover uses the same black and white scheme, but eschews the single hand for silhouettes of Marco and Celia. The ARE version was better still, simplifying even more.