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DNF’ed twice: why I couldn’t finish ‘The Night Circus’

It is incredibly rare that I do not finish a book.

I have a nasty habit of pushing through to see whether or not the novel gets any better. By the time I’m over halfway, I have concluded that I must see how the story ends (and if it’s as bad as the rest). However, The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern proved to be an exception to that rule.  

'The Night Circus' sits on wooden slats and a piece of black and gold fabric. A bunch of playing cards are laid beside to book as well as a red teapot, flowers and white teacup and saucer.

One of my favourite guilty pleasures in life is to rearrange my bookshelves. Perhaps a trivial waste of time, there’s something about matching spines, titles, colours, and genres together that puts my mind at ease. It’s on a morbidly windy day that I decide to do just this. I’m mid-way through pulling each title from the shelf when I spy the cover of a certain book that I remember disliking some years back.

Why I still own the novel is truly beyond me, but it intrigues me enough to leave my arranging endeavours to put the kettle on and settle down with the book and a large cup of tea.

A zoomed in photo of 'The Night Circus' on a wooden backdrop with red and white flowers in the background.
Here we go again…

The Night Circus had been recommended to me by multiple people some years back, and with sparkling reviews, I’d been excited to pick it up.

The plot apparently followed two rivalling magicians who have been preordained to best the other in a dual. This alone hooked me in; not to mention the book’s historical setting within a mysterious circus.

A bunch of playing cards fanned out on a wooden table. 'The Night Circus' sits behind in the background.
A well worn 100 pages of re-reading

Fifty pages in and I’ve begun to realise why I’d stopped reading it in the first place.

The main characters, though technically present, feel two-dimensional and irrelevant. Erin’s writing, though stunning in its visual complexities, has begun to streeeeeeeeeeeetch on.

At 490 pages, it looks as if I’ve barely tried to read the book at all when I place the bookmark in. It’s just so darn long! Heaving another sigh, I continue the slog.

'The Night Circus' sits on a wooden table atop an old red book. Two playing cards - the jokers - are sticking out of the pages. A red and white candle sit beside the book.
The cover like the blurb is a bunch of empty promises

Another 150 pages on and the book is shut once more. That plot I’d been so excited about? I’d yet to discover it.

Perhaps that’s my biggest issue with this novel – there’s nothing to relate to. I can’t connect with the characters at all.

Were you to remove this fantastical dual and the protagonists themselves… it would be the exact same.

It’s a battle against myself every time I open The Night Circus. The description of this stunning circus is beautiful and with the occasional second-person interlude, there’s nothing I want more than to see it in person. But that’s all this story is.

A black and white joker playing card sits on top of a book page.
How I feel picking up this book again.

It’s only after reading three quarters of the book that the dual (aka the entire plot) is revealed and our two magicians fall tragically in love and defy their masters. But the only thing tragic about this novel is the torture I’ve put myself through to get to this point.

Set within 16 years, the story tends to jump back and forth in time. However, I hadn’t truly noticed this until the second time reading – and I still don’t care as there’s nothing to ground me in the different times.

So, at page 324, I’ve given up and DNF’ed (did not finished) it all over again.

'The Night Circus' sits on a wooden talbe with playing cards fanned out around two of the corners. A teacup of tea sits next to the novel as well as a red teapot and red and white flowers.
Many many cups of tea were consumed to get to page 324.

If you’re after a quick reality dash to a black and white circus, then this book may be for you. Morgenstern’s writing truly is a work of art (and the only reason this book will remain sitting on my shelf).

But if you’re after a novel in which to immerse yourself, BACK AWAY FROM THE BOOK.

It’s 490 pages of (albeit pretty) senseless descriptions that could’ve been summarised in a chapter or two.

Don’t let those reviews beneath the blurb fool you. There is no breath-catching romance or high stakes dual. There is however a fancy clock, a bunch of unnameable characters (who I’m told two of which were supposed to be protagonists), and excessive amounts of birds and food. Lots and lots of food.

Keep that in mind, this book will make you hungry.

A wooden bookshelf with lots of books on it sits. The books all face with their spines out except one 'The Night Circus' whose cover faces out.
Still on the shelf?

Returning to my bookshelves once more, I slot the title well away from view. The cover faces out – a reminder to all that for some unknown reason, this long scenic description is technically classified as a novel but shouldn’t be treated as such..

Approach with caution, and don’t be afraid to leave it without completing. It probably ends the same way it starts – with a black and white circus and people I don’t know, and quite frankly, don’t care about.

Photos by Elizabeth Kovacs