"The circus arrives without warning."
These five words make up the first paragraph of Erin Morgenstern's wildly successful debut novel "The Night Circus" (Random House, 2011). They launch readers immediately into a world where magic is real (if disguised), where a circus that travels the world is no more than an elaborate ruse for a contest between magicians, and where the pawns in the contest will fall madly in love.
Morgenstern uses a complicated structure in which the reader must keep track of the year at the beginning of each chapter to understand which part of the story is being told. Despite that, it took me no time at all to immerse myself in the Victorian-era, black-and-white world of the circus, which is a character unto itself. In a lovely touch, Morgenstern populates the stark palette of "Le Cirque des Reves" with a group of circus devotees who wear red scarves to recognize each other.
Within the imaginative setting floats a simple love story: Boy (Marco) and girl (Celia) meet and fall in love, but must overcome seemingly impossible hurdes if they want to be together. But Morgenstern makes this her own in the dreamlike tributes that the two would-be lovers create for each other within the ever-expanding circus. The Cloud Maze created by Marco, for example, is described as "a series of platforms swooping in odd, diaphanous shapes, quite similar to clouds. They are layered, like a cake. ... It is a maze that goes up and down as well as side to side."
My only quibble with the story is that the magic falls away when the two lovers have private moments that seem a little too breathless and raw for a novel in which the reader is suspended within an impressionist dream. But in general, the novel is a remarkable achievement that takes the reader on a unique journey and will almost certainly be made into a movie, since the rights have already been sold.
Book clubs will likely discuss whether or not Morgenstern succeeded in suspending their disbelief and whether the logic of a circus that mixes illusion with actual magic holds.
Related Topics: Have you read "The Night Circus?" Does your book club plan to read it?