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TSS: Thoughts on a re-read: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

March 10, 2013

The Sunday Salon.comHappy Sunday, all!

A few programming notes, first. I’ve been posting reviews on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for almost as long as I’ve had this blog (which is… a long time.) Anyways, I think I’m going to switch that up. At least for the near future, I’m going to move to posting reviews on Tuesdays and Thursdays; it works better with my schedule, and the sad truth is that I’m just not reading as much or as quickly as I have in the past. If things pick up again, I may change back, or stick with a Tues/Thurs/Sun schedule.

Anyways, today is not exactly going to be a review, or even a typical “Review Revisited” post that I’ve done in the past when I re-read a book. I recently joined a book club, and the first book discussion was for Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus. I loved this book, so I totally jumped at the chance to re-read it (and it may or may not have a selling point for joining the book club in the first place). So today’s post is partly my thoughts on the re-read, and partly issues that got raised during the book club discussion (to which I totally wore black & white and a red scarf, like the giant geek that I am).

Re-read. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (2011)

Read By: Jim Dale
Length: 13h 39min (390 pages)

Genre: Fantasy/Historical Fiction

Originally Read: 27 August 2011 (Read my original review)
Re-read Finished: 27 February 2013

Summary: Le Cirque des Rêves arrives suddenly in town, its wrought-iron gates opening only at nightfall. Inside its multitude of black-and-white striped tents, visitors will find all manner of fantastical exhibitions that defy belief and spark imagination. But what the casual visitor will never realize is that the circus is actually the center of a vast magician’s duel. Years ago, two master magicians made a wager, and pitted their protégées against each other in an arcane game whose rules remain obscure, even to its participants. Within the realm of the circus, Celia and Marco spur each other on to even greater feats of magical accomplishment, but their growing attraction to each other threatens to change the course of the game… with unknowable consequences for everyone whose lives have become linked to the circus.

Thoughts on a Re-Read: Technically, this is thoughts on a re-listen. Recently, I’ve had more time for audiobooks than actual books, so I decided to listen to this rather than re-read it. It was a good decision; Jim Dale does a wonderful job with the narration, as always, and while my mental association of Jim Dale with the Harry Potter audiobooks reinforced the magical atmosphere that Morgenstern has already created, none of the voices sounded overmuch like any Harry Potter character, and it was easy enough to keep the two distinct. While I did enjoy the audiobook, I also listened to it with the actual book close at hand; the shifting timeline is complicated enough to keep straight in print, let alone in audio where it’s much more difficult to flip back a few pages and figure out where in the chronology you are.

I think this is a book that rewarded a re-reading, not just because I liked it so much the first time, but also because reading it while knowing what’s going to happen let me pay more attention to a lot of the smaller threads and subtle details woven throughout. My first time reading this, I loved Bailey & Poppet & Widget’s story, and was less involved with Celia and Marco, despite their being the ostensible protagonists. To some extent, that was still true this time around – I think Widget’s still my favorite character, or really, the three kids in combination are my favorite – but I was much more involved in the “main” story this time. (Also, I don’t know if this is a difference in the way I read print vs. audio, or if I just missed it the first time, but damn, Celia and Marco have some of the sexiest hand-holding that I’ve ever read.) There were more subtle shifts in my reaction, too; in particular, I really disliked Isobel the first time around, but found her a lot more sympathetic on a second read. Tsukiko, too, was a much more interesting character on a re-read.

The re-reading process also allowed me to pick up on a lot of the foreshadowing that I probably missed or read right past on the first time. There’s a lot of examples, but one particular bit stood out for me, that I’d like to talk about, namely Bailey’s experience in the “Bedtime Stories” tent.

Tucked in the back of one of the shelves is a small bottle, rounded with a short neck and closed with a matching glass stopper. He picks it up carefully. It is heavier than he had expected. Removing the stopper, he is confused, for at first the scent and the sensation does not change. Then comes the aroma of caramel, wafting on the crisp breeze of an autumn wind. The scent of wool and sweat makes him feel as though he is wearing a heavy coat, with the warmth of a scarf around his neck. There is the impression of people wearing masks. The smell of a bonfire mixes with the caramel. And then there is a shift, a movement in front of him. Something grey. A sharp pain in his chest. The sensation of falling. A sound like howling wind, or a screaming girl. -p. 238-239

When I listened to this, at first I was confused, since I had lost track of the timelines, and the relevant events hadn’t happened in the book (on the page, I mean) yet. So I was thinking that this was related to Poppet’s prophecy of the night, and I couldn’t figure out how it had wound up in a bottle inside Widget’s tent. And then I once I realized that this was in fact a memory, and I was thinking about the implications of Widget putting his memory of that night into a bottle. And then I realized that of course, it’s not Widget’s memory at all, although I think the emotional and psychological reasons behind why he included that bottle among so many other fantastical ones are the same, no matter whose memory it is. But then that raises the question… are the other bottles also memories? Or just stories? Or are those two the same thing, and anyways, there’s no such thing as “just” stories? (I told you Widget was my favorite.) I don’t have any good answers, despite the number of people at the book club discussion that said that was their favorite tent. (I always ask whenever I’m talking to anyone about this book, and I’ve found that the scent tent is by far the most popular.)

(You’d have a hard time dragging me out of the Cloud Maze, for what it’s worth.)

We also spent a fair amount of time talking about Alexander and Prospero, and if one was worse than the other, and if Alexander really did Marco a favor by pulling him from the orphanage, and if Celia and Marco would have found each other and fallen in love if they weren’t bound together by the magic of the game. I’m inclined to think not, but someone pointed out that Alexander does describe Marco at one point as being the perfect counterpoint to Celia, in terms of abilities and inclinations, so I don’t know… but again, how much of that was inborn, and how much drawn out and developed by the game? There was also some discussion about the ending, and whether it fit, or was happy or sad, or whether they could have devised another solution. And maybe I’m biased by how much I love the book, but I can’t imagine another ending that would have felt right and satisfying, and despite neither Alexander nor Prospero being anything remotely like good fathers, at the same time, they did give their children the chance to have magic in their lives (albeit for completely selfish reasons), so that’s got to be worth something.

Okay, so, that’s enough of me rambling. What do you think, readers? (Or rather, what do you think, fellow rêveurs?) Favorite characters? Nature of the past vs. the future and the importance of timing and how time both affects and is affected by stories? Possible alternate endings? And of course…. favorite tent?

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. March 10, 2013 4:05 pm

    I’m impressed that you’ve read this twice – I haven’t even had the chance to pick it up the first time yet. It sounds like y’all had a good discussion.

    • March 10, 2013 4:34 pm

      Kathy – It was sooner than I would ordinarily re-read a book, but I wanted the details fresh in my mind.

  2. March 10, 2013 5:47 pm

    I just finished this for the first time, and actually listened to it, so I’m looking forward to going back and actually reading the print version. I completely understand your revisiting so soon – I’m thinking I might take my second journey to the Night Circus before the summer is over. My favorite character throughout the whole story was Celia – I just loved her from the start. I found the ending to be quite melancholy, but I can’t imagine another one. I thought the Wishing Tree was such a beautiful idea, and I would love to lose myself in the labyrinth.

    • May 14, 2013 12:17 pm

      Elizabeth – The Wishing Tree didn’t catch my attention at all the first time I read through it, but this time around I did love it.

  3. March 10, 2013 11:14 pm

    Good on you for switching up your review schedule for something that works better—sometimes I feel it’s easy to turn habits into ruts you can’t get out of, even when you need to.

  4. March 15, 2013 10:47 am

    I’m with you, if there had to be a favourite tent, it’s got to be the Cloud Maze for me. I’ve only read it once and I was drawn to the trio Bailey-Poppet-Widget more as well. But it’s definitely a book ‘d like to re-read at some point, especially because it took me a bit to get into it and care about the characters the first time.

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