This complex novel consistently gets labeled as a romance, and I’m fine with that. I think more books should be labeled as romances. I think it’s harmful to literature as a whole to sideline anything as some sort of “genre fiction.” Dante Alighieri wrote self-insert fanfiction, so why is that considered a bad thing (although he also wrote a literal romance, his “Vita Nuova”)?
I think that if more things were labeled romances, we would get a greater depth of discussion as to what actually constitutes a romance in fiction. Because if you tell people you’re reading a romance nowadays, the word on everyone’s mind is smut, and that’s not a good thing for the formerly-acclaimed literary genre.
This is all my justification for saying that I think that Erin Morgenstern’s “The Night Circus” is a troublesome romance. The book itself isn’t necessarily bad. I just think there were some significant missteps that leave a funky taste in my mouth, perhaps for other readers too. And this is a real shame, because I’m a sucker for books like these. I knew from the title alone that this book would interest me. Take any sort of wonderful Disney-esque idea/locale and place it at night and I’m sold.
What makes this taste sit even more heavily in my mouth is that the first parts of this book were so enticing. Morgenstern lulled me (and I’m guessing many others) into “The Night Circus” as if the readers were actually there. The descriptive language in this book was great: I didn’t just read about the colors of the circus tents- I could almost see these colors drench onto the pages.
Probably the biggest compliment I can give Morgenstern is that she’s probably the only author I’ve read that situated the central romance so naturally within her novel. I’ve always found that with books where a relationship plays a central role, there comes a point where the physicalities of the relationships begin to take away from the novel or where the relationship gets sidelined for the plot. This is seen in many typical romances popular in the last couple of years, including “Twilight,” “Divergent” and really any other heteronormative teen romance work.
I think that in terms of the relationship itself, Morgenstern forms a solid ground in the story’s romance, although she successfully never lets these scenes take too much away from the plot, or vice versa. Everything in this book was plotted the way it needed to develop into a solid, grounded novel. And while I don’t think everything in the central relationship of this book is perfect, I do think that Morgenstern is able to write this relationship’s development in a very fulfilling manner.
I was also quite fond of how the characters themselves interacted with one another in general. Morgenstern knows how and when to let her characters flirt, fight and mess with one another. It felt surprising the way these characters developed off of one another.
The characters interact with one another like the trapeze performers in the book: they push themselves farther than any one person could do alone. Some of the characters are also clear standouts: Widget, Poppet, Isobel and Billy are all joys to read. But it’s not all fun and friends at this circus; there’s some pretty glaring faults in some of these acts.
One thing that I think we all expect from romances more so than other styles of narrative is a focus on characters: not just on what the characters are doing, but what they are thinking when they do something, how they react to one another’s presence and thought and in how the relationships between characters changes as the plot progresses. One thing that I find astoundingly frustrating about this novel is in how it really drops the ball in this department in the final act of the novel.
Without spoiling too much, one of the most significant characters in the novel is revealed not only to be an Iago-like manipulator, but that his concern for others is solely for selfish purposes.. This in itself isn’t a bad thing at all. You could level this claim at any male protagonist from any book ever.
What I find ridiculous about this book is how it doesn’t reconcile these obviously faulty traits of the character within the context of the romance. It just doesn’t make sense for this character to end up the way he does, and I can’t find any sort of reason for it from the author.
Another frustrating mishap is in how the nov- el’s antagonist is a liminal one. I got the feeling that Morgenstern couldn’t decide if she wanted to make this character a villain or not despite the narrative of the novel making it explicit that this character was the antagonist.
What develops is a sense of whiplash when the big bad villain who commits straight-up homicide is treated as a friendly sort of fatherly figure. An analogy would be if Luke Skywalker had started treating Emperor Palpatine as a fellow Jedi at the end of “Empire Strikes Back.” It just doesn’t fit and is a rather gaping hole in the plot.
I want to say that this bad taste doesn’t overwhelm the rest of the book, but it does. It’s not just that this book has some misfires, it’s that these misfires come at the most critical parts of the book. Not only does the central romance feel spoiled for me, but so does a large chunk of the book.
Going back to the trapeze analogy, it’s like this book was a botched performance: one that had a plethora of fantastic movements, but a couple of fatal mistakes will label this performance as the one where the performers “messed up.” Although it has some mishaps, I am hopeful for the future of the romance genre as a whole. I am certain that if Morgenstern develops further as a novelist, she will be able to successfully write a beautiful romance.