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BOOK REVIEW

Her life just became a three-ring circus

With major buzz and a movie deal, Erin Morgenstern’s debut fantasy novel has already cast a spell

Rights to Erin Morgenstern’s ‘‘The Night Circus’’ have been sold in 30 countries. Rights to Erin Morgenstern’s ‘‘The Night Circus’’ have been sold in 30 countries. (David L. Ryan/Globe Staff)
By Caroline Leavitt
Globe Correspondent / September 13, 2011

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Can any hotly-awaited book really live up to its hype? Consider “The Night Circus,’’ a first novel by Massachusetts native Erin Morgenstern, which started generating the kind of buzz that most writers only dare dream about, months before publication. With a hefty first printing of 175,000 and rights sold in 30 countries, “The Night Circus’’ also boasts a major motion picture deal from Summit Entertainment, the same folks who gave you the “Twilight’’ series. And David Heyman, who was responsible for the eight Harry Potter movies, is expected to be the producer.

While attention this lavish might make some readers skeptical, get ready to be won over: “The Night Circus’’ largely lives up to the accolades. Startlingly inventive, haunting, and definitely strange, it’s part love story, part fable, and a knockout debut - with a back story nearly as surprising.

Morgenstern grew up in Marshfield and studied theater and studio art at Smith College. After graduating in 2000, she went to work as an office temp and moved to Salem and later Boston, where she now lives. A talented artist, she sold her paintings after quitting temp work and also created the Phantomwise Tarot deck, which has the same black and white color scheme of her novel, and incorporates Egyptian mythology, Victoriana, and of course - circus motifs.

About six years ago, Morgenstern, who had never published fiction, decided to try her hand at it during National Novel Writing Month in November. She struggled with her manuscript off and on over the next several years, producing a work that was mostly vignettes not yet anchored to a plot. It was rejected by more than two dozen agents. Eventually a few agents offered her some encouragement, suggesting major revision. Morgenstern rewrote, found an agent, and her book sold in a week.

The reason why is apparent. Morgenstern doesn’t mess around, snatching you by the lapels with her first sentence: “The circus arrives without warning.’’ And this is no ordinary circus. Materializing at will, this turn-of-the-20th-century spectacle comes only at night and closes at dawn. When you enter, every sense is assaulted and transformed by the sights before you. A contortionist folds herself into a tiny glass box and vanishes in a puff of smoke. You can wander in a maze made up of puffy clouds. The food, right down to the chocolate mice with licorice tails, is its own kind of intoxicating wizardry.

But Le Cirque des Reves is here for a purpose. It becomes the setting for a desperate and deadly challenge, drummed up by two fierce rivals, Hector Bowen, known as Prospero the Enchanter, and another magician named Alexander.

As the book begins, Hector is grooming the skills of a young, talented illusionist, Celia, while Alexander trains Marco, a boy he picked up from the London streets, in perfecting his magic arts.

The two children are fated to be opponents, vying against each other’s talents, to decide which magician, and mentor, is the greatest, a match that spans years and takes place exclusively under the circus’s billowing big tops. But the catch is that at first, neither child can know the identity of his or her opponent. Complicating matters, Celia and Marco find themselves drawn to one another romantically as they grow older. Even more dangerous, there is a final, terrifying piece of the wager that demands more than mere hocus-pocus to avoid a tragic conclusion.

The burgeoning relationship between the two combines beauty and destruction. The magic tents Celia and Marco produce as part of the contest become mesmerizing love letters. Marco makes Celia a lush garden made entirely of ice. He fashions a ship that sails on ink. She responds with a burning wishing tree where one wish ignites another. They touch and the chandeliers rattle. Tired of the challenge, they yearn to be together, but any attempt to do so results in excruciating pain, because they have been magically bound to continue and complete the game. As more and more of the circus people become inadvertently involved in the fates of the players, the circus itself begins to fall apart, and the body count begins to tally. As the novel races to its high-wire conclusion, Morgenstern explores questions about fate, time, dreams, the reality of magic - and the one thing that is no illusion at all - love.

Morgenstern’s book is so sparklingly alive, you swear the pages are breathing in your hands. As if in a three-ring-circus, she expertly juggles overlapping narratives, telling the story of the lovers, the aging magicians, the circus folk, and the transfixed revelers who rabidly follow the circus everywhere, their red scarves flapping behind them.

The tale blurs lines between reality and imagination. It’s “actual magic disguised as stage illusion,’’ incredible feats that make “the unbelievable believable,’’ a world where faces can change and time can slow and one man can have no shadow at all. Morgenstern’s writing is no less dazzling, and is so sensory that she makes you feel the frost in the ice garden and taste the spun sugar.

Morgenstern credits some of the inspiration for that approach to an innovative production of a play called “Sleep No More,’’ inspired by Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,’’ by the British Punchdrunk theater company, which made its American debut with the American Repertory Theater in 2009. The performance was an immersive experience in which audience members were free to roam a series of sets, making the play a collaborative act.

“The Night Circus’’ lags sometimes, and though it is a love story, Marco and Celia are not as intoxicatingly drawn as might be expected. You don’t really see the two falling in love (they don’t meet until nearly halfway through the book), and they are kept at a distance from us. But truthfully, the real and enduring love story isn’t between Celia and Marco. Instead, it’s between the readers and the enchanted circus itself, which haunts and bewitches on every page.

A Romeo and Juliet tale drenched in magic realism, “The Night Circus’’ defies both genres and expectations. In short, it’s a showstopper. And what more could you ask from a debut book or from such a prodigiously talented author?

Caroline Leavitt’s latest novel is “Pictures of You.’’ She can be reached at www.carolineleavitt.com.

THE NIGHT CIRCUS

By Erin Morgenstern

Doubleday, 387 pp., $26.95