Magic in Manhattan

Elephants in ManhattanOn 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.

NightCircusThumbnailIn 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):

A Book Blog. Period

The Book Addict’s Guide


Leeswammes’ Blog

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


  1. I find it fascinating when two people read the same book and have such opposite reactions. I adored these characters so much! And (reading thru your comments) I actually despised the cover. Haha.

  2. This is very interesting to read, as I’m half-way through the Night Circus (and will have to do a review when I’m done). I find my feelings about it very confusing. I adore the prose- I think the descriptions are fantastic and relaxing, and that’s not something writers are allowed to indulge in much today. I want so badly to go to le Cirque des Reves… but that’s the best thing about the book so far. I was hoping you’d say the plot picked up and became more compelling toward the end, that I’d fall in love with Celia and Marco. Oh, well. Onward.

    1. It’s a very polarizing book. Readers either loved it or hated it. Nothing happens for a long time, and when the action finally starts, it feels contrived. This is an “atmosphere book,” which has its merits, but not enough to justify its purchase price or sticking with it until the end. Maybe you’ll have a different experience. I’m looking forward to reading your thoughts on it!

    1. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to give a book a chance! What works for some readers won’t work for others. Still, that’s one I wouldn’t recommend to anyone.

  3. What a sight, elephants on the streets of NYC! Makes the procession on the streets of our little town seem insignificant looking at the skyscrapers and big city lights, however seeing the elephants on parade through the eyes of my two boys made the difference.

    1. Elephants are spectacular wherever they are! Your pictures are fabulous. I added a link to my post.

      You’re right–the true magic is seeing it through children’s eyes. I didn’t have kids yet when I stumbled upon the elephants in NYC. I can only imagine how excited they would’ve been to see the spectacle!

  4. Haha! It’s funny because I’m more interested in the fact that you saw elephants than this book. Yeah, I had a similar connection problem reading “Prince of Thorns.” He’s supposed to be 13 but talks like he’s 37. Granted a lot of bad crazy crap happened to him, but it made him unreachable in a way. Maybe that was the author’s intention, but I certainly didn’t walk away from it wanting the sequel nor caring to read it again. Kids can be mature, but kids should still be kids, even if it’s only for a brief shining moment. Thanks for pointing me to this. I think I’m going to add it to the library queue, even if only to read as an example.

    1. I hope you’re able to glean some sort of lesson from it. All I can come up with is that a pretty cover and heavy marketing will make anything a bestseller. The “best” part of the book is when the characters themselves admit there is no point to the competition at the heart of the story. At 54% of the way in, Marco (the creepy guy we’re supposed to like) says, “I confess… I don’t fully understand the point, even after all this time.” Celia, his boring competitor and love interest replies, “Nor do I.” Seriously. That’s what they said, and I couldn’t agree more with them. The book is awful, but loads of people disagree with me.

    1. There are quite a few people who loved it, but there is a sizable group of dissenters. I really wanted to love this book, but I prefer plot to prose, and I need more action. Thanks for stopping by!

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