As a fellow participant of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), I heard Erin Morgenstern’s name before she was actually published. Her debut book, The Night Circus, created a metric ton of ballyhoo prior to publication. She was touted as the next Harry Potter, even snagging the phenomenal Jim Dale to narrate the audio version of her magical book.
And like other NaNoWriMo success stories, the overnight success was preluded by years of hard work. “A very sprawling, very rough draft of The Night Circus was first written in a few different Novembers of NaNoWriMo. Almost the entire book was rewritten and revised before it got from there to the finished version. To give you an idea of how much: Celia isn’t in that first sprawling draft. It is a lot of stuff about the circus but not a lot of plot, but it gave me something to work from,” Erin has written on her blog.
But the professional polish and imaginative story stands alone, creating a wondrous world which will lasts long past the last page.
The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des Rêves, and it is only open at night.
But behind the scenes, a fierce competition is underway: a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood expressly for this purpose by their mercurial instructors. Unbeknownst to them both, this is a game in which only one can be left standing. Despite the high stakes, Celia and Marco soon tumble headfirst into love, setting off a domino effect of dangerous consequences, and leaving the lives of everyone, from the performers to the patrons, hanging in the balance.
From Random House
Erin Morgenstern’s publisher, Random House, has a wonderful selection of book club discussion questions here. But as always, here at the Reader’s Feast, we have a few more questions to round out your discussion.
- The circus vignettes are disconnected from the narrative and written in second person, making them intimate, vivid, and memorable. Readers seldom encounter second person point of view. (Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney is one of the few notable novels written in second person.) Was it jarring to you or did it draw you in? Could you imagine yourself at the circus?
- What tent or exhibition would you most want to visit? What foods would you want to taste? What feature would you avoid?
- Like magic, the story is revealed through sleights of hand—juggling the past with the present, hiding pertinent information until the last moment, and providing misdirection. How was the story enhanced (or lessened) by the tricks?
- Was it fair for the circus members to be pulled into a contract without their approval? Were the benefits (agelessness, travel, etc.) enough to outweigh the risks?
- Prospero has a mental and magical hold on Celia, including after his “death.” How can a ghost of a person be stronger than a real person?
- Marco and Celia struggle with balancing the ever-expanding circus. How is this a reflection of how we overextend ourselves?
- There are several pairings in The Night Circus. Marco and Celia, Poppet and Widget, Celia and Herr Thiessen, Marco and Isobel, and Tara and Lanie Burgess. Bailey is one of the few unpaired individuals. How does this make him different? Would he make a different decision about joining the circus if he was paired? Is Poppet enough for him or is she too closely paired to Widget to fully give herself to Bailey?
- Have you ever been behind the scenes of a circus, a play, a restaurant, a special production, etc? What was disconcerting about the behind the scene look? What took you by surprise?
- The reveurs were like followers of a cult. Today’s culture offers several cult options, such as certain events, movie franchises, some stories, etc. What elements are often found in a cult? (Some ideas: a universal truth, compelling characters, likeminded individuals, common ground, etc.)
- Who would you cast in the movie of The Night Circus, which is in the works?
- The circus would be nothing without its audience. Why do stories need to be told and heard to release their power?
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern is as magical as its many, varied tents. It is a book that invites us to visit repeatedly—studying for the sleights of hand, reimagining the character’s motivations and desires, and relishing its promised delicacies.
On Wednesday, I will share the recipe for Black and White Red Velvet cookies, with a nod towards the reveurs of the Le Cirque des Rêves.
When my kids were babies, I read a book a day. As the supreme-book-picker-outer for two book clubs, I have to read at least 20-30 books a year to make my book club selections. And as a writer, I find it hard to read and write at the same time.
Conservatively, I would say that I read between 60-90 books a year. I tend to binge on them–eight in a week followed by two weeks of writing. Last summer, I took 17 books on my eReader and read them all on a six day cruise and three days of travel.
I love that I have friends from all over the country who still email me with book suggestions. Many times I have already read them but it is nice to see what books they think I would like. (Most of them deal with some level of dysfunction…hmmmmmm…)
Here are some of my favorite books, in no particular order:
If you have not read this book, you have missed one of the literary greats. As a fan of multiple point of view stories, this is a shining example. The language is pitch perfect, the story is riveting and the themes are complex.
The Red Tent by Anita Diamant
My church-based book club read this book and it made for a fabulous discussion. A book about menstrual cycles in Biblical times is an arresting logline but the stories are unique. Based on Rachel and Leah from the Old Testament, its an interesting peek into catty women and their difficult relationships–fueled by PMS.
Phantom by Susan Kay
The oldest and least read on this list. I read Phantom in college, at the height of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical. It tells the story of Erik and Christine before and after the story we all know. I love it for its backstory and its exactly adherence to Gaston Leroux’s original novel, which was written as a police report. Brilliant!
Kindness of Strangers by Katrina Kittle
Katrina is one of my favorite authors of all time–and a good friend. Her book, The Blessings of the Animals is her most recent book and one I can wholeheartedly recommend to all audiences. Kindness of Strangers is my favorite though. It follows a young boy who has suffered sexual abuse at the hands of his parents. The story is not about the abuse though. It is about his triumph over it–scars and all.
The Help by Kathryn Stockett
A lesson in capturing voice, I walked through two stores while my husband carefully guided me around poles and other shoppers, because I could NOT stop reading this book.
Gods in Alabama and Backseat Saints by Joshilyn Jackson
Joshilyn Jackson is an online friend who was kind enough to take me along for lunch at a conference we attended. We discussed Joss Whedon, Indian food and revisions. I fell in love with Gods in Alabama–in part because of its first paragraph. I was thrilled then when she wrote a sequel of sorts in Backseat Saints. Both are excellent and you can read them in any order.
Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
I just saw Sara last week at an event, where she discussed the upcoming movie, her research methods and her love of animals. Sara is one of the heroes of NaNoWriMo,having written three of her first drafts in the month of November. Water for Elephants has delicious twists and turns. I was convinced she had wrote herself into a corner until I read the end. Brilliant!
I have cried over exactly two books. This is one of them. Unfairly, Lisa is a bestselling author, a brain surgeon (!!) and gorgeous. I’d like just one of those traits. Still Alice is about early onset Alzheimers and Lisa wrote it from the patient’s point of view. Talk about an unreliable narrator. Alzheimer’s looms on my horizon and this book was both educational and terrifying. And in the end, it was heartbreaking.
The Guernsey’s Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
Clever and sweet, this book was published after the author’s death (Mary Ann). I mourn that we won’t have more books from her. Each of these characters come to life and still live on in my brain.
There are so many more to suggest.