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Off the Shelves: Night Circus showcases a stylish spectacle, but sacrifices depth
1009REEGERCOOK.NightCircus

‘Night Circus’

By: Erin Morgenstern
Price: $26.95
Rating: Three out of five bookmarks

I always felt October is a magical month: the transformation of the trees into the warm colors of autumn, the crisp breeze that is a much-needed salve to summer's heat. And my favorite holiday is just around the corner, a night of masquerade and treats make Halloween so much fun.

Erin Morgenstern's debut novel, "The Night Circus," shares many of the elements of dreamlike whimsy and shadowy strangeness we associate with All Hallow's Eve, which is why I selected it to start off October's reviews. Will this midnight revelry of the fantastic astound readers, or is this literary exhibition of illusion, forbidden love and abundant Shakespeare references less than magical?

The "Night Circus" welcomes us into Le Cirque des Rêves, "The Circus of Dreams," a place of black-and-white-themed enchantment. Behind the scenes, however, it is the battleground for a secret age-old competition.

Since they were children, Celia Bowen and Marco Alisdair have been trained by two enigmatic tutors in magic, unwillingly bound into a rivalry that will one day pit them against one another. As a venue for them to develop their skills of manipulation, events are put into motion to create the most unique circus in the world, allowing each competitor to build greater and greater feats of illusion, while the public believes it all to be showmanship.

As Celia and Marco begin to learn about each other and collaborate on several of the circus's attractions, they reject being pawns in their mentors' wager and discover a magic more powerful than any they've ever known: They fall in love. The repercussions could have a devastating effect on their unavoidable duel, as well as the people involved with The Circus of Dreams, endangering all of their lives.

Morgenstern's writing is steeped in colorful cascades of descriptions. She emphasizes on the little nuances of the performers' costumes and dresses, the designs of the circus's architecture and exhibits, the storybook-style icons that are worked into the various sideshows.

While all this focus on illustrating the tale does give the reader some impressive imagery to contemplate — it makes me wish the novel was accompanied by artwork; I would be interested to see this story adapted into a more visual medium — it is, unfortunately, overly lavish lace, trim and frills on an otherwise formless story.

I suppose part of the reason the story offers so little explanation to the meaning of the "competition" between Celia and Marco is that it is meant to be as mystifying as the magic they wield.

However, for most of the novel we are not told what the stakes of the game truly are; therefore there is a lack of tension that should have been present throughout the book.

By the time we are told what the stakes are, it is rather expected and anticlimactic; by that point, knowing that anything is possible for our star-crossed illusionists, we don't worry about their fate). And this is not helped by the fact that the characters' personalities are about as weighty as the various "ghosts" that come and go through the story.

As I mentioned, there are several references to Shakespearean plays, some more heavy-handed than others, but this is more to add to the theatrical depictions that the author clearly enjoys weaving rather than giving insights or emotional layers to who the characters are.

"The Night Circus" is a fine example of style over substance, but that's not to say it is not an entertaining diversion from the monotony of life, much like the luster and lights of a weekend carnival. It does seem like a land of dreams, a place where one would want to be swept away into imagination, and thus the titular circus itself leaves a more lasting impression than the characters or plot.

If you choose to journey into this unique attraction, you may enjoy the sights, smells and sounds, but the narrative itself will be drowned out by the outlandish façade.

Alison Reeger Cook is a Gainesville resident whose Off the Shelves book review appears every other week in Sunday Life. Know of a good book to review? Email her to tell her about it. Her column appears biweekly and on gainesvilletimes.com/life.

 

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