1.“The Night Circus,” by Erin Morgenstern
(Doubleday, 387 pp.)
Like Olympic athletes, Celia Bowen and Marco Alisdair have been groomed single-mindedly since childhood for a competition. The only problem: They have no idea what the rules of the game are, how long it will last, or how they’ll know if they’ve won. Oh, and – much to the irritation of their coaches – the two opponents have gone and fallen in love.
The two aren’t sprinters or spelling bee champs. They are 19th-century magicians who can really turn a raven into a writing desk, or vice versa. But they have to convince everyone in the audience that the real magic they’re seeing is fake. Fortunately, as Marco’s aloof mentor, the man in the grey suit, tells him, “People see what they wish to see. And in most cases, what they are told that they see.”
Magicians’ duels usually take place face to face, whether it’s Harry and Lord Voldemort or Merlin and Madam Mim in Disney’s “The Sword in the Stone.” (Madam Mim turned into a purple dragon; Merlin turned into a virus. She caught him.) The two opponents in The Night Circus often aren’t even on the same continent. There also are no purple dragons in Morgenstern’s much-buzzed-about debut novel, but that’s because they wouldn’t go with the monochromatic color scheme.
Everything in the Cirque des Rêves is black, silver, or white, from the Ice Garden and the Cloud Maze to the fire-breathing paper dragon. The circus never advertises its arrival; it just appears. “Opens at nightfall. Closes at dawn,” a sign explains. Another sign warns that “Trespassers will be exsanguinated.”
Morgenstern intersperses details about the delights to be found there with the story of Celia’s and Marco’s training and the creation of the circus. Celia’s father, Hector Bowen (aka “Prospero the Enchanter) proposes the competition after the five-year-old shows up at his stage door after her mother commits suicide. Hector’s rival, the man in the grey suit, plucks Marco from an orphanage. As befits its wandering habits, “The Night Circus” jumps around in time. After a childhood of abuse, Celia gets a job as the circus’s illusionist, unaware of the identity of her opponent. Marco remains behind in London as a dogsbody to the circus’s ostensible owner, impresario Chandresh Christophe Lefèvre, creating enchantments from a distance. As the two play off each other’s imaginations, the circus’s fame grows – as do the stakes in the competition.
“The Night Circus” isn’t without flaws. The large secondary cast is underdeveloped – with the exception of Widget and Poppet, twins who were born the night the circus opened – to the point where even violent death seems muted. But Morgenstern’s novel feels crafted from the fabric of a dream, and the circus itself never fails to astound. For me, the only real disappointment was that I couldn’t buy a ticket.
“The Art of Fielding,” by Chad Harbach
(Little, Brown & Company, 558 pp.)
Henry Skrimshander, an undersized shortstop who shares the record for the most consecutive error-less games, hurls the first bad throw of his college career. It heads straight for his roommate, Owen, cracking his cheekbone and knocking him unconscious.
Skrimmer, as his teammates call him, can’t seem to recover from his first taste of doubt, throwing in jeopardy the first major-league prospect little Westish College has ever had. “You could only try so hard not to try too hard before you were right back around to trying too hard. And trying hard, as everyone told him, was wrong, all wrong.”
While Henry might be the star, credit for both his impending signing bonus and Westish’s first winning seasons go to catcher Mike Schwartz, a senior who lives at the athletic center, serving as team scout, coach, and Henry’s mentor. Schwartz, a Renaissance man with bad knees, has just gotten a fistful of rejection letters from law school, leading him to wonder if maybe he spent too much time on Henry’s future and not enough on his own.
Westish’s president, Guert Affenlight, rushes to the hospital with the seriously injured Owen, and winds up so smitten that it threatens what had been a comfy academic career. (Presidents of colleges are pretty much never allowed to date students, no matter the gender.) His daughter, Pella, meanwhile, scuppered her own academic career four years earlier, when she traded Yale for marriage to a middle-aged architect who seems to have gotten relationship tips from the movie “Gaslight.” Now Pella is back in Wisconsin trying to regroup, but her distracted dad can’t seem to focus on anyone but Owen.
Harbach cycles through the point of view of his four main characters throughout that spring, as a home game becomes almost an auto-da-fé. “We all have our doubts and fragilities, but poor Henry had to face his public at appointed times, with half the crowd anxiously counting on him and the other half cheering for him to fail.... So raw were his struggles that it felt like an invasion of privacy to go to the games, and at the worst moments Affenlight felt guilty for being there and wondered whether spectators should even be allowed.”
“The Art of Fielding” gets its title from Henry’s bible of the same name, written by his hero, Aparicio Rodriguez. Harbach employs plenty of baseball philosophy, neatly twinning the single-minded devotion needed to be great at America’s pastime with the obsession at the heart of the great American novel, “Moby-Dick.” Westish, whose mascot is the Harpooner, has a statue to Melville, who, after failing to make a living as a writer, gave a talk there one evening in the 1880s.
“Baseball, in its quiet way, was an extravagantly harrowing game,” Schwartz, the novel’s moral center, muses. “What other sport not only kept a stat as cruel as the error but posted it on the scoreboard for everyone to see?”