On Friday, the 13th of April, the heavy winds and rains of a late season Nor-easter barrelled up the eastern seaboard. Largely oblivious to how this storm would affect my plans, I traveled from Philadelphia to Rochester, New York to spend the weekend celebrating an upcoming wedding with my best friends from law school. My return flight was cancelled, and when the worst of the weather had passed, I ended up on a train that slowly made its way from Upstate New York to Manhattan.
I arrived at a nearly empty Penn Station in the wee hours of a Monday morning, long after the departure of the last train to Philadelphia. At 7th Avenue and 34th Street, to my great relief, I spotted my husband driving a bright red Prius from Philly Car Share, stopped in a sea of yellow New York City cabs. Soaked, cold, frustrated, and (let’s just say) exhausted after a rowdy bachelorette weekend, I was eager to go home.
But torrential rain and high winds were not the only impediments to my homecoming. Right before my husband could cross the intersection and pull up to the curb, cops flooded the area and blocked traffic.
I froze, thinking I was in the middle of a crime scene, until the reason for the yellow tape lumbered into view. Then, for a moment, I worried I was hallucinating, as a parade of elephants, ponies, and pygmy ponies marched before me to the tune of “Heffalumps and Woozles” from Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day. Okay, so they didn’t really play the tune as they marched, but the sight did make me feel like a giddy child watching Winnie the Pooh’s heffalumps or Dumbo’s pink elephants on parade.
These circus elephants were gray and entirely real, headed home after their last night in town. It was a bit of magic in Manhattan.
What triggered this five-year-old memory?
It was Erin Morgenstern’s debut novel, The Night Circus, which features a magical circus, one without elephants or clowns, that appears at random and is open only between dusk and dawn.
In this work of historical fantasy, Morgenstern develops an enchanting setting that takes place at the turn of the 20th Century in major cities across the world, including New York and London. The writing is description-heavy with such tedious detail of the scenery that I wondered whether there would be any action amid the slew of adjectives. It was also difficult to adjust to the book’s disorienting structure: adjacent chapters that skipped time, place, and even viewpoint (third person/second person).
The heart of this story focuses on Celia and Marco, two young people with psychic and telekinetic talents, chosen to be competitors in a fight-to-the-death magical battle designed by egotistical men for nothing more than their own entertainment. The circus is the arena where the battle will take place.
We meet Celia when she is around five-years-old. She is mature beyond her years, and speaks like an adult, instantly losing the childlike quality that would have engaged my maternal instinct and would have made me care for her as though she were one of my own. She grows up quickly, and while the description of the abuse she endures makes my heart ache, I never connect with her or any of the other stiff characters; they all feel like the author’s marionettes trudging through an effort to cash in on both Harry Potter and The Hunger Games.
In the end, there was very little magic in this novel, nothing as mesmerizing as watching elephants marching through Manhattan on a cold, rainy night. The story feels forced without a clear motive behind the magical battle; the flat characters feel underdeveloped; and the plot feels like an afterthought, a few lines of action squeezed into endless paragraphs of description.
We all could use a bit of magic in our lives, particularly when we want to escape from the harsh reality that’s been in the news lately, but this novel is not the place to find it.
For other reviews of this novel (some are very positive, others are mixed):
JoV’s Book Pyramid (includes excerpts from other book blogger reviews)
*Picture taken by my husband in April 2007
**Check out these elephants in downtown Greenville, SC at Liene’s blog: Femme au foyer.