(Spoilers ahead for The Night Circus)
(CW: depression, anxiety, alcohol, suicide)
I expected to hate The Starless Sea.
I’d been hyped about everything from the cover (bees! keys!) to the plot synopsis (something something pirate ship in a magic sea!) until I realized who wrote it: Erin Morgenstern, author of The Night Circus, my least favorite book of all time.
To unpublished authors, Erin Morgenstern is a legend. She’s breathlessly mentioned during National Novel Writing Month, with participants reminding each other that Morgenstern wrote her debut novel, The Night Circus, during a long-ago November. Almost every person I’ve met who has read The Night Circus counts it as one of their favorite books.
Once I learned of Morgenstern’s connection to The Starless Sea, my excitement evaporated.
Even so, when my local library chose Starless as one of their peak picks, I figured I’d give the book a shot.
If I didn’t like the book – which I PROBABLY WOULDN’T – at least I hadn’t spent money on it.
In a fun twist, I now call Starless one of my favorite books.
Even better, I loved it from the very first mention of bees.
I can’t adequately explain why bees are so funny to me – just know that I was tickled to see bees mentioned in Starless’ second chapter and delighted to see the bee motif carry on throughout.
When I wasn’t laughing about bees, I was gasping and swooning and sighing over the book’s many twists and turns.
I finished the book and sent a gushing review to my friend and neighbor Nikita, begging her to read it.
She was shocked.
She knew well how much I hated The Night Circus and insisted I reread it to see if my feelings had changed. Conveniently enough, she just so happened to have a copy.
I flew through the book in two days.
I sat with it for a while after finishing and decided that I probably liked the book.
It’s hard to explain.
Dashed expectations were the root of my original ire with The Night Circus.
I was nineteen when I first read the book: at that age, my opinions were strong, my tastes were rigid, and I read too quickly to absorb themes.
In The Night Circus’ case, I also fell victim to misleading advertising.
Numerous magazines, book reviews, and blogs pitched The Night Circus as a breathless romance that was heavy on whimsy.
You know…like Moulin Rouge!
(This should have been my first clue.)
Based on this description, I envisioned a reading experience similar to The Serendipity Market, a middle-grade fantasy novel I’d loved for years. I thought I’d find romance and magic and love conquering all.
I found some of those things.
I was a bit distracted by my rage about all the things I didn’t find.
For instance, a plot.
Lovers of The Night Circus have trouble telling me what the book is about. (“There’s…a circus?”)
The book opens before the inception of the titular circus with two rival magicians forcing their apprentices into a “game” of sorts.
Though the rules of the game are never explained, its goal, ostensibly, is to show which magician is the better teacher.
It’s clear from the beginning that apprentices Celia and Marco will eventually fall in love.
THIS is what I’d come for. I could forgive the vagueness of the plot if the romance met my breathless expectations.
I slogged through 300 pages before the leads even met. When they finally did, it was love at first sight.
Their meeting was immediately followed by a three-year time skip to the leads conducting an affair.
All that build-up and most of the romance happened off the page.
In fact, more attention was given to the many side characters and their subplots, none of which I cared about.
Most egregious of all: I hated Marco, an unpleasant, bowler-hat-wearing asshat who already had a girlfriend when he met Celia.
Mash all these ingredients together and you’ll find nineteen-year-old me rage-skimming The Night Circus’ final pages, which would come to bite me when I couldn’t make sense of the story’s conclusion. For this, of course, I blamed the book.
I resented this book so much for betraying me.
As a counselor once told me, though, anger is a secondary emotion; a different emotion was driving me.
It took me eight years to figure out that reading The Night Circus made me sad.
Fun fact: when you’re a depressed and anxious teenager and the book you expected to be a fun adventure takes you on an existential journey, you will do whatever you can to suppress your emotions.
I was a college student when I read The Night Circus. I’d internalized the message of “do more, try harder” and was quickly driving myself to a breakdown.
I read books to escape. Serious stuff was for class; in my free time, I wanted swoony romance and happily endings.
The depressing coming-of-age themes in The Night Circus pissed me off. How dare this book call me out when I was trying to stay positive! How dare it try to drag me down! Why couldn’t it give me the happy ending I needed?
And WHY WASN’T ANYTHING CLEAR-CUT? How come the circus was black and white but everything else was gray? Why weren’t the characters making good choices? Why was Marco such an asshole? Why did Bailey leave his house a few minutes late and ruin everything? WHY WAS SUICIDE SO PREVALENT AND WHY DID THAT FREAK ME OUT SO MUCH?
These weren’t questions I wanted to answer.
I closed the book and disparaged its contents for almost a decade.
Maturity came on slowly because…well, growing up sucks.
Funnily enough, I received a copy of The Night Circus at a NaNoWriMo book exchange in 2019.
I did everything in my power to convince someone to take it off my hands.
I clearly wasn’t ready to revisit that story.
I was finally able to quantify why the book bothered me.
Early on in my reread, I noticed a shift in the book’s atmosphere: about 200ish pages in, The Night Circus develops a somber tone.
It builds as Celia and Marco realize they’re each other’s opponent and continues as the progenitors of the Night Circus realize they’ve stopped aging.
The melancholy follows Tara Burgess as she investigates the circus’ strange effect on her body. I sensed her horror and desperation during her confrontation with Ethan Barris, in which both characters realized the exciting circus they’d built together wasn’t fun for them anymore.
This scene turns the novel’s romantic fantasy into existential body horror.
How’s that for whimsical?
The person who started this blog, the one who wrote YA book reviews and did dramatic readings of Jenni James novels, was very different from the profane, spiritual-ish, brutally-honest writer I am now.
I survived a bout of depression that shattered my faith and left me with a general distrust of people and institutions.
Escapism doesn’t come as easily to me anymore.
I can’t go back to Hogwarts without remembering J. K. Rowling’s transphobia.
I can’t revisit Anne Lamott without noting the gaps in her awareness.
I can’t rewatch Star Wars without thinking of how epically Disney failed its marginalized fans.
I hold my favorite media loosely, knowing that the things I love and the people that created them are weak, finite, and imperfect.
All that to say I now get what The Night Circus was trying to teach me.
Though I didn’t want to believe it, the book was right about a lot of things: that the things we love can hurt us; that good things sometimes require sacrifice; that we can try our best and still regret our actions.
And you wonder why I started drinking again.
Some of my original issues with the book persist.
As I mentioned, I hate Marco. Why would I want Celia to be with an emotionally-distant manchild who cheats on his partner and manipulates his boss when she could be with someone kind and well-adjusted like Herr Thiessen?
Compared to The Starless Sea, The Night Circus is dour and tragic. Its ending can be classified as “bittersweet” at best, with a heavy emphasis on “bitter.”
Writing-wise, Morgenstern has some habits that pull me out of the narrative.
As such, my final rating is closer to 3.5 than 4 stars (though I rounded up on Goodreads.)
I (mostly) like what this book has to say and wouldn’t mind rereading it in the future.
That said, I don’t feel good when I read it.
The global pandemic has been weighing heavily on me.
While The Starless Sea offers hope in this new reality, The Night Circus doesn’t quite get me there. Its bummer-y nature keeps me from calling it a favorite.
Still, a 350% increase in my rating between 2012 and 2020? That’s impressive.
I still don’t know that I can recommend this book.
The worldbuilding is probably The Night Circus’ strongest element; for readers who love ambience, this book will enchant.
Character-driven readers might be disappointed by the two leads, though others might enjoy the ensemble cast.
Plot-driven readers…best of luck in your future endeavors.
If asked my honest opinion, I wouldn’t know quite what to tell people.
My feelings about this book are complex, swinging from negative to positive every minute of the day.
Honestly, though? That’s just life, shifting in ways we never expected.