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The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
The circus arrives without warning. Le Cirque des Rêves, the circus of dreams. Much like a dream, this story will not make much sense until it is over. It jumps around in time quite a bit. Please bear with us. Sometime before the arrival of the circus, Celia, a five year old, arrives at the home of Hector Bowen, or Prospero the Enchanter as he is sometimes called, with a note pinned to her jacket. She is his daughter and when her accidentally shattered teacup reforms itself by magic, he is pleased. Hector has a proposition for another man, Alexander or The Man in the Grey Suit. A game. Hector introduces Celia, and The Man in the Grey Suit agrees to the game, though he'll have to find a player. And he does. At an orphanage. A small boy of nine named Marco. For years, the two train with their mentors for the game, but very differently.
Marco meets a girl, Isobel, in the streets 10 years later. She has retrieved a notebook he dropped and upon returning it, the two stop in a pub where they talk about what is in the notebook. Spells and such. Isobel reveals that she reads tarot and then, when they leave the pub, he shows her real magic, taking them out of the rainy street and into a sunny forest where they kiss. Later, he reads her mind in his flat as he tries to teach her simple magic. The Man in the Grey Suit arrives and tells him he will be applying to work with a man as a preliminary to the game, Chandresh Lefêvre, who will be the one who will set the stage for the competition. He also says that Marco should not have any distractions, referring to Isobel. Celia, meanwhile, is forced to work as a medium, swindling people of their money and she hates it. Hector barely allows her to eat. He breaks her wrist, yells at her to stop crying, and leaves. Later, in another time, a boy of ten, Bailey, is dared to go into The Night Circus during the day when it is closed and bring something back. He sneaks in despite warnings of exsanguination, and meets a girl with bright red hair dressed all in white. She tells him to leave but gives him a white glove to show his friends.
Marco goes to work for Chandresh who often has elaborate dinner parties at midnight. Here, they begin planning The Night Circus. One evening, a contortionist arrives. She is covered in tattoos and can do the most amazing tricks. She joins the circus. A man named Herr Friedrick Thiessen makes a clock for the circus. It is beautiful and black and white and gray and does elaborate things as each hour chimes. Elsewhere, Hector dies and Celia reads through letters of condolence. She changes all the flowers received to roses and magically sets some of the letters on fire. She opens one that simply reads Your Move. Celia then goes to audition for the circus. Chandresh is not impressed as they are seeking illusionists, not lovely assistants, but she IS an illusionist, trained under her father, Hector Bowen, Prospero the Enchanter. She transforms her jacket into a raven, Marco's notebook into a dove, her green dress into an elegant black and white one to match the circus theme, and her brown hair to nearly raven black. She is hired, of course.
Marco realizes Celia is his opponent immediately and talks to Isobel about it and together, they decide that the circus is the setting for the game. Isobel reads her cards, asking if Celia is pretty and if she is more powerful than Marco. Isobel offers to help him by working for the circus and sending him letters. He is not supposed to leave London to travel with the circus because he is Chandresh’s personal assistant and so will have to work his magic from afar if the circus is indeed the setting. It is. He is worried. In a later time, Bailey, the boy with the glove, now several years older, is told he must stay at home to mind the farm instead of going to Harvard. His grandmother wants him to follow his dreams and go to college, but really, he only has one dream. To find the redhead girl from the circus who gave him the white glove. But the circus has been gone for years. He climbs the old tree where they used to sit and watch the circus when he was a boy only to see that it has returned!
Back in time, the very first opening night arrives and everything goes beautifully, especially the lighting of the bonfire to kick things off. Twelve archers each shoot an arrow into the fire on their chime of the clock and the flames change colors with each new arrow, ending with brilliant white flames in the cauldron. Turns out, Marco was responsible for the magical flames, a great way to start the competition he thinks. The only thing that happened that was unexpected that night was the birth of the wildcat tamer's wife's twins, Winston and Penelope, who were not expected quite yet. They are given the nicknames Widget and Poppet. Widget is given black clothes, Poppet white, and they both have bright red hair. Celia missed the lighting of the bonfire, but she felt it and wonders what she should do to retaliate. Chandresh also feels the lighting, almost as if he is tied to the circus as well.
Bailey enters the circus again, hoping it will be as wonderful as he remembers, afraid that it won't be. It is still fantastic of course. He's looking for the redhead girl in white, but there's no way he'll find her. He resigns himself and watches several performances, the contortionist fits herself into a tiny glass box and disappears, the illusionist sets a chair on fire, makes doves randomly appear and transforms her coat into a swath of silk into a top hat. After the performance, he finds a woman that appears to be made of snow and ice on a platform reading In Memoriam.
Celia spends some time exploring a new tent, the ice garden. It's beautiful. She also watches the twins who seem to have seer abilities, one sees the past, the other, the future. Celia gets the idea that the magic in the circus gave them these powers. Later, she asks the engineer, Mr. Ethan Barris, to build a carousel that she brings to life. It is spectacular, but Hector, who appears to be a ghost, disapproves. Marco meanwhile seems to not like Isobel anymore. She never gives him enough details in the letters she sends about Celia and the circus. She has, however, woven a bracelet made of their hair which he surreptitiously disappears. He asks her about a new addition to the circus, a living tree full of candles called The Wishing Tree. He summons The Man in the Grey Suit who disapproves. Neither of the players understand the game.
The clockmaker, Herr Thiessen, visits the circus when it goes to France. He is proud of his clock and begins to make more like it. He would love for the circus to go to Germany, so he writes to Chandresh. Marco replies vaguely to his letter. Soon there is another of Chandresh's midnight dinners. Celia goes for the first time since the circus opened and talks with Marco. Later, the clockmaker receives an invitation to the circus when it is nearby and begins to write about his visits, which leads to them being included in social papers, then shared worldwide. He becomes the leader of the Rêveurs, the fans of the circus. Aficionados. They even begin dressing in black and white and gray like the circus folk, but add a bit of red so they can recognize each other. He gets letters from other aficionados and writes back often. He receives a letter from someone he does not recognize in New York. A Ms. Bowen.
Marco visits Mr. Barris, asking what he knows of the circus. He reveals that Celia told him that what she does is real. He says he used to provide his engineering feats to help magicians make their work seem real, but now he does the opposite. He agrees to not share any information and to help Marco construct things, too, without telling Celia. Mr. Barris agrees and will not take sides. He creates something for Marco and later Celia writes him to ask if she can add to it. Yes, he replies, this creation was made for both of them. They each keep adding rooms to a tent and create The Labyrinth.
Tara Burgess, one of the ones who helped design the beginnings of the circus and who frequently helps with it along with her nearly identical sister Lainie, talks to Mr. Barris about whether or not he feels he lives in a dream. It seems she feels this way. He gives her a card for Mr. A.H–, which is The Man in the Grey Suit, and says he may be able to help, but if he will or not... who can say.
The circus is closed one night due to inclement weather. Celia takes her umbrella and goes to a local tea shop and sits with Isobel. Isobel reads tarot for her. The cards reveal that Celia is in a competition and will meet her competitor soon. The door of the shop opens and closes with no one seen arriving. Must be the inclement weather! Celia leaves soon after, now with a magical umbrella that keeps her dry and warm. Marco chases her down, saying that he believes she has his umbrella. Ohh ho ho. Now she knows for sure. Marco is her opponent! He asks if she'd like to go for a drink. She disappears instead.
Back at the circus with Bailey, he visits the fortune teller and asks her name. How thoughtful! Isobel thinks. She reads his cards. He wants to know if he should go to college or stay on the farm. She tells him vague things about travel that he doesn't really follow. She knows that he is looking for Poppet. Less vaguely, she sends him in her direction. Meanwhile, Widget tells Poppet a story about a wizard who gives a girl his secrets. She has magic now and traps the wizard in a tree, but eventually, she loses her magic. The wizard grows into the tree and into immortality. He lives forever as the girl ages. What an interesting tale!
Tara goes to see The Man in the Grey Suit about the circus and how she is losing her connection with reality. He convinces her that she needs to find something else to occupy her time and leads her to her train. He disappears and reappears on the opposite side of the station, across the tracks from her and is arguing with a man that looks similar to him but transparent. She steps closer to see the two but does not see the train. Near this time, Celia meets with Herr Thiessen in Germany when the circus travels there. They have dinner and have a delightful conversation about books. They walk around his shop, looking at clocks. She places her hand on a broken clock that he has given up trying to repair and now, it runs perfectly. They go to the circus together later, separating on arrival, but he goes to see her perform. They spend several evenings together as companions. But then, she gets news from London. At Tara's funeral, Tsukiko postulates that the circus is controlling their lives. No one within the circus has gotten sick or died, apart from Tara, or had children, apart from the twins. Once you begin to remove yourself, however, you can see the big picture and things begin to change. A living statue called the Snow Queen stands over Tara's grave. In memoriam, perhaps.
Bailey finds Poppet and they and Widget walk around the circus. They tell him that they can see the past and future and that's how Poppet knew his name all those years ago when she gave him the glove. They give him a silver ticket to return to the circus as many times as he wants. He thinks after going home that he is finally becoming who he is supposed to be. Switching back to the other timeline, after a midnight dinner at Chandresh's, as everyone is leaving, Celia cannot find her shawl. Marco has it and requests the drink they didn't get to have when they met in the rain. They talk of the competition and that they don't understand it and think of it more as a dual exhibition instead. They reveal that they were trained in very different ways, Celia by pain and force, Marco by books and indifference. He gives her a tour of Chandresh's mansion and they display some of their talents and talk about the circus. They have a powerful connection, especially when they touch. Celia disappears again, forgiving Marco for stealing her shawl, and purposefully leaves it behind.
Three years after this, there is a celebration of the circus's thirteenth anniversary. It is at Chandresh's and most everyone from the circus is there in bright rainbow colors. Isobel is following Marco around, besotted, but he only has eyes for Celia. Chandresh gives a rousing speech and mentions how no one seems to be getting any older, except for the twins, and then everyone kind of forgets what he was saying. The Man in the Grey Suit is there and when Marco and Celia sneak away, he follows. He tells Marco that they shouldn't be together. One of them will eventually have to win because the game won't stop until this happens. He says he quits, but that's not possible. He storms away and to the middle of the dance floor where he kisses Celia, then makes everyone forget what they just saw, then leaves. The Man in the Grey Suit also leaves, and the twins notice he has no shadow.
In Bailey’s time, he returns and explores the circus more. He finds a tent that doesn't really look like he's supposed to go inside, but it has a tiny sign reading Bedtime Stories, so he goes in. The tent is full of jars and boxes of bedtime stories, or really the stories of people that Widget has talked to. Opening them, he experiences snippets of these stories. Later, after the twins have their performance training kittens, he and Poppet play hide and seek in the ice garden. Chandresh is losing his memory and his purpose. He's drinking all the time. He goes into Marco's office and looks through all his things about the circus but they don't really make sense. He breaks open a locked drawer that contains a book. The book has the signatures of everyone involved in the circus and a lock of their hair. While he’s snooping, Marco comes in. Chandresh fires him and Marco says he can't leave, but then Chandresh forgets all about everything. Marco packs some things and leaves for the night. Chandresh remarks that he has no shadow, then he talks to the ghost of Prospero who helps him remember some things.
Lainie goes to see Mr. Barris who explains what he can of the circus, how his engineering feats are magically enhanced by Marco and Celia. Then she talks to Celia and explains to her that people aren't as easily mended as teacups that she can just break and repair whenever she chooses and that she should ask for help if she needs it because there are more people involved that could get hurt, you know, like her sister. Celia and Marco want to leave the competition so they can be together and they don’t want anyone else to get hurt, but they find that if they even plan to leave the circus, they feel such immense pain that they can't bear it. Looks like they’re stuck. A little later, Celia talks to The Man in the Grey Suit, but it is unknown what is said. In Bailey’s time, Poppet visits him and asks him to come away with them when the circus leaves and is afraid that, if he doesn't, the circus won't last. She's seen it in the stars. In all her time in the circus, nothing has ever gone amiss, but when they were exploring earlier, they kind of almost got stuck in a room in the labyrinth. Luckily Bailey found a key, which means he's got to be important. She kisses him before she leaves and he knows he'll follow her anywhere. Maybe this is what his tarot cards were showing him to do with his life. Not college, not staying on the farm… running away to join the circus.
On Halloween, Marco tells Isobel what she has been fearing, he doesn’t love her, he never loved her, he wishes that he could have, but he loves Celia. She removes from a box a bowler hat she has tied with ribbons and the tarot card Marco pulled so long ago. A binding. She realizes everything about the circus has been about Celia and Marco, they're doing everything for each other and she has been helping to keep it in balance. She is done, so she undoes her binding. Then, she hears Poppet scream. Moments before this, Chandresh shamblingly follows Alexander, Mr. A H__, The Man in the Grey Suit, through the circus. Chandresh hasn't been in some time, The Man in the Grey Suit has never been. Chandresh throws a knife at The Man in the Grey Suit, but at the last moment, he steps aside, and the knife burrows itself into the chest of the Herr Thiessen instead. Everything stutters and Poppet screams.
Bailey is following his true dream and sneaks out to leave with the circus, but by the time he is able to leave, the circus is nowhere to be seen. That’s odd. Did it leave early? Prospero and The Man in the Grey Suit have an argument about who will win and who has chosen a student they will not become attached to and are not afraid to lose. When Celia spoke to The Man in the Grey Suit earlier, she invited him to the circus, hoping to end the competition. She and Marco are frustrated with the game. She tells Marco things are out of balance because of Isobel and clearly bad things are happening now. She tried to save Herr Thiessen, the clockmaker and her friend, but couldn't. All those times of cutting up her fingertips and healing them was not enough. While she was attempting to save her friend, Marco was chasing Chandresh. They talk about how they don't want to do the competition anymore and what is going on with their instructors. Marco hasn't had much to do with The Man in the Grey Suit for years. Celia says Hector tried to do a spell that got rid of his physical form and it didn't go well. He's still tied to several places and to her, so he’s not really dead, but he’s pretty much a ghost. They finally sleep together because they just can't stand it any longer. When Marco wakes, Celia is gone but has left her ring. She has also left with his safeguard, the book of binding, the one with all the signatures and hair. Outside of Marco's flat, Hector is waiting. He calls Celia a slut and tells her she's pathetic and will never win etc. etc. She finally realizes that the game will only end when one of them dies. She asks what happened to the winner of the last challenge. Hector says she's trying herself in knots at the circus. Ohh ho ho!
On the circus train, Celia talks to Tsukiko about the game. They talk about the circus continuing after the game is over and how Celia is tied to it and it will be difficult to remove herself. Tsukiko’s competition was much less public and she can’t really believe that they’ve let this one become as big as it has. Celia has put so much of herself into it and it’s difficult to determine what will happen because she is so intricately tied into it. Celia and Marco talked about this before and it's why she took his book. The book he placed into the bonfire the very first night is the only thing tying him to the circus, but Celia has given a part of herself to everything she's put into it. Tsukiko says if she stabbed Celia in the heart, the train would crash. Celia asks for Tsukiko's help since she was the last winner, but she can't do that. She will take over if things get out of hand though. And that might be done soon.
Bailey wanders around the field where the circus was, trying to figure out what to do. He runs to the train station, hoping to catch up with the circus before it leaves, but no luck. He sees a couple wearing bright red scarves and realizes they are probably following the circus. They invite him to join them and take him in, letting him stay with them and buying him a new suit. They tell him all about being Rêveurs and how the circus has been off-kilter since Herr Thiessen died one year ago. They head to New York. Shortly after Herr Thiessen's funeral, Celia tells Marco that the game will only end when one of them dies, that it is about endurance, not skill. She stole his book to learn how to take herself out of everything she has made because it's getting too difficult to run basically the entire circus with her magic. She wants to take herself out of the game and out of the world, perhaps magically like her father or by suicide like her mother. Marco wants to help her so they can be together because he loves her. He believes she doesn't trust him. She knows that his helping won't work, so she asks him to leave and not come back.
Celia pores over Marco's book. Prospero appears, pestering her. She accuses him of sending Chandresh after The Man in the Grey Suit and causing Herr Thiessen's death. She tells him she hates him. Meanwhile, Marco summons The Man in the Grey Suit, and tells him that Celia believes one of them has to die. He says she is correct. Marco asks why The Man in the Grey Suit would do this to him. His response? Because it's better than the life he might have had otherwise. Later, Poppet and Widget talk to Celia. Poppet is worried because she has seen the circus on fire and Celia with Marco, though the twins don't know who he is. In Poppet’s vision, Celia is there, but then she isn't there but she is at the same time. Then after the fire, Bailey is there. Poppet believes this is going to happen soon, but it can't possibly because they are headed to New York, Marco is in London and Bailey didn't join the circus. Celia won’t let anything bad happen to them and immediately begins to practice setting things on fire without letting them burn.
Bailey and his Rêveur friends arrive in New York. He is one of them now and was given a red scarf. Another Rêveur they are staying with tells them that the circus was closed the first night due to inclement weather, which is odd, and there was a loud banging sound at midnight. Bailey takes off running. The timelines are finally meeting now. Isobel meets up with Marco and tells him that he and Celia would have had a chance, it was all in the cards she read for a young man, but the timing was off. Her timing is always off. She blows something like black ash into his face and he disappears. Bailey arrives at the circus. The gates are closed and he's much larger now than he was at 10 when he snuck in before. He climbs a tree and jumps the fence but sees no one. He expected to find Poppet but instead found Tsukiko. She is acting as an emissary to take him to a meeting. She tells him if he had arrived earlier, things would have gone differently. There was clearly a fiery explosion at the bonfire, but none of the tents were damaged.
Marco is transported to the circus by the ash. He is greeted by Tsukiko who sent Isobel to retrieve him. Everyone else is at the inclement weather party. She lets him know that she was a student of Alexander, who she thinks it's not pleased by the circus. She won the last game, or survived it, 83 years ago. She "won" when her opponent who, like Marco and Celia, was also her lover but set herself on fire, which is what Celia is planning to do. They go to the bonfire. Celia arrives, but Tsukiko tries to send her away. She struggles with the circus because it makes her remember her lost love so, like she told Celia a year ago, she's going to end it, with Marco's sacrifice. As she's about to blow him up, Celia grabs him, holds him tightly, saying to trust her, and he does. The explosion is huge and afterward, there is nothing but falling rain in the cauldron.
Celia pulls herself back together inside her tent. But it is oddly transparent and she is alone. Marco is nowhere. Celia can transport herself anywhere within the circus, or is she moving the circus around her? She can't feel or touch anything. Marco arrives in the transparent ice garden. He also can't touch anything. Then Celia appears there too and says she loves him. He reaches to touch her and is relieved when he can. Whew! She uses the circus as a touchstone, so they are there, but not there, kind of like Marco’s journal or when Prospero accidentally deleted himself, but kind of better? But uh oh. The ice garden begins to melt. The bonfire has gone out and Celia's having trouble holding the entire circus together. She doesn't know what will happen to everyone if she lets go.
Bailey goes to the ice garden and sees Marco in there, but he is transparent. Tsukiko was going to imprison him inside the bonfire, but Celia caused this to happen instead. Marco leads Bailey to the wishing tree through the acrobats' tent where the inclement weather party was happening before the explosion. Everyone is currently suspended. At the tree, Bailey meets Celia, who asks him to take over the circus, but most importantly, she gives him the choice that she and Marco never had. Thankfully, he agrees. He will always choose the circus. Marco binds Bailey to the circus by burning Celia’s silver ring into his palm. And now, to relight the bonfire. Bailey gathers materials: a pocket watch, yarn, two cards, one tarot, one playing card, a certain book and Tsukiko's lighter. He wraps the book with the cards in the yarn and the watch and puts them in the cauldron along with some other things: his silver ticket, a rose, his bedtime story bottle that he got from Widget, and Marco's bowler hat. He lights the fire and the circus flickers back to life.
Poppet goes to Chandresh's to get him to sign over the circus to Mr. Barris and Lainey. He does without complaint. Then Poppet gives him a black and white kitten to keep him company. They look over blueprints in his house that become the plans for a museum. Chandresh feels better than he has in years. Widget meets with The Man in the Grey Suit. They talk of stories and of Marco and Celia. The Man in the Grey Suit hopes that Marco and Celia will eventually be able to go on one day. Widget is there to obtain his part of the circus and his payment is a story. The story of the circus. Widget begins as this book begins. The circus arrives without warning...