I have just finished reading the most marvelous romance. Only it isn’t, strictly speaking, a romance. It’s the literary book The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern. It’s possible you could call it a literary book with romantic elements, but whatever you call it, it is one of the most romantic books I’ve ever read.
The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des Rêves, and it is only open at night.
But behind the scenes, a fierce competition is underway—a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood expressly for this purpose by their mercurial instructors. Unbeknownst to them, this is a game in which only one can be left standing, and the circus is but the stage for a remarkable battle of imagination and will. Despite themselves, however, Celia and Marco tumble headfirst into love—a deep, magical love that makes the lights flicker and the room grow warm whenever they so much as brush hands.
It’s all there. Hero and heroine. Pitted against each other—battling for a high-stakes outcome. It’s not quite spelled out in the description, but they’re wounded, these young magicians. They’re wonktastically wounded, actually, because they’ve been pawns in their mentors’ game. Their love is, to put it bluntly, a terrible idea. Celia is the worst (and best) woman Marco could love, and vice versa. And the sexual tension? Insane. Never has not-kissing been so hot. Collaboration and competition are the best foreplay.
The Night Circus even has an HEA, of sorts. It is not the sort of HEA we are accustomed to, but I am picky about my HEAs, and I found this one incredibly satisfying. Celia and Marco will not, precisely, grow old together, but you cannot imagine an outcome in which an impossible love is more perfectly made right.
(There are other reasons you might not want to read this book if you are an implacable, dyed-in-the-wool romance reader. It is slow, like a flower unfolding into bloom in real time, and the hero and heroine are not always “onscreen.” I got a little stuck around the one-third mark because of the slowness. But I assure you, it was worth the effort of continuing.)
Still, it is a wonky HEA, and it made me think about what we expect from our love stories, and why. It reminded me of a literary book that is even more definitely not a romance but that is probably my favorite love story of all time, The Time Traveler’s Wife. More spoilers ahead. The Time Traveler’s Wife is a tragic brick-to-the-head of a book, and yet I know I will reread it, because it was one of the most brilliantly plotted and convincingly constructed love stories I have ever read. It was gorgeous the way Romeo and Juliet is gorgeous, only with less adolescent sturm und drang and more real, grown-up love. It had all the elements of the very best romances, and if you’re willing to forget everything you’ve ever believed about the progress of time, it has a forever quality to it, where in some inwardly-wound, God’s-time version of the world, the time traveler and his wife will meet again and again. (If you haven’t read it and hate sad endings, stay away!)
I’m definitely not trying to argue here against the strictest, most important, most immovable hard constraint of our genre ever made. If the hero and heroine cannot live happily EVER after, by which I don’t mean in the literary twisty sense but in the real-life, growing-old-as-one-minute-passes-after-the-next sense, it’s not a romance. I believe that more than anyone, because I hate sad endings.
For what it’s worth, the ending of The Time Traveler’s Wife made me sad. The ending of The Night Circus didn’t. So I’m going to go out on a limb and claim it for romance. Our genre would be richer for owning it in all its wonktaskitude.
But regardless of whether it’s romance or not, it’s a book that romance readers, particularly those who are attracted to the wonkier margins of the genre, will love. What’s more, The Night Circus is a book that romance writers can learn from: a dusk-’til-dawn workshop on the flirtation between language and love, a lesson in life-or-death stakes, and a primer on all the ways bliss flirts with agony.