Earlier this week I returned The Night Circus to store even though I was only about halfway through it. I was so disappointed. Everyone seemed to love it so, and I thought I would love it, but given that it took me two months to read 214 pages and there were still 170-some pages to go, love does not seem like the thing that was happening.
Morgenstern tried so hard to make the story elegant that it became
nothing but caricature. It's supposed to be a battle between magicians, which sounds a lot more interesting than Morgenstern manages to make it—at least as far as I read. The illusions are too perfect, too
intricate, the characters too exactly what you would expect of them.
After a while the detailed descriptions of the magic contained in the
circus become downright wearisome, and in the meantime I was longing to learn more
about the characters outside their roles as performers. The only action I found compelling was Celia's refusal to let her father change her name. That happened on p. 11. I read 203 more pages waiting for someone to do something admirable and/or interesting. Yes, there's lots of magic and illusion, and it's all "Interesting," but none of it is actually interesting.
Sometimes I have to remind myself that I get paid to read textbooks and student essays. No one is paying me to read novels, so when I'm reading "off the clock," as it were, I have the right to enjoy it. So I gave myself a little mental shake, retrieved my favorite bookmark, and back to the library it went.
Turns out I dropped Circus at exactly the right time because Where'd You Go, Bernadette, by Maria Semple, happened to show up in my holds queue the very same day. (If you've already read it, visit the link just for the doll. I am going to need a Bernadette doll.)
Bernadette is everything Circus is not. Primarily that consists of being believably unbelievable, with characters who are loveable because they are interchangeably flawed and redeemable, sometimes one or the other moment to moment, usually both at the same time. The story of a misanthropic, semi-agoraphobic* famous architect and her family is constructed through a series of e-mails, memos, transcripts, articles, and other electronic ephemera. It looks like the stack of research someone getting ready to write a book would compile, not the book itself, and at first I thought that conceit would drive me batty, but I wound up sinking right in. It's an excellent way to execute sudden shifts in point of view. In fact, when Semple switched to traditional first-person narration at the end, it was a little disconcerting. It was the only off-note in what I am unashamedly calling a symphony of awesome.
Okay, I'll admit the ending of Bernadette is maybe not the most believable denouement in all of literature, but it works because you want it so, so badly. I was prepared for the story to end in the predictable, practical way. I would've understood. But when it took that one final twist, I was so pleased and excited that I literally gasped aloud. Bertie Sue, who is offended by all unexpected noises, even relatively quiet ones, woke up and gave me the glare of death. I'm seriously thinking of proposing her as the library mascot. Having been suitably chastised, I finished the rest of the book wearing a huge (silent) grin.
So, to conclude, The Night Circus: Skillful writing, really boring plot—or more probably an interesting plot poorly executed. If you're really into magic, read it just for the descriptions of the circus; otherwise, skip it and reread Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell instead. Where'd You Go, Bernadette: Read it. Do you hear me? Read it!
*Yes, yes, I know.
P.S. I had forgotten that Bernadette was one of the contenders in the 2013 Tournament of Books. That's how it made it onto my reading list in the first place. It lost its round to The Orphan Master's Son, which ultimately won the tournament. I suppose I'll have to it read now, though it doesn't sound like near as much fun.