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I recently read these two books back to back and although I loved them both, I was struck by the contrast in their style. Both were New York Times bestsellers, both written by NaNoWriMo authors, and both were acclaimed by teenagers and adults alike. As a NaNoWriMo participant working on a YA novel, I thought it would be interesting to look at the strengths and weaknesses of these stories, especially when put side by side.

THE NIGHT CIRCUS

“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.
True love or not, the game must play out, and the fates of everyone involved, from the cast of extraordinary circus performers to the patrons, hang in the balance, suspended as precariously as the daring acrobats overhead.
Written in rich, seductive prose, this spell-casting novel is a feast for the senses and the heart.”

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The Night Circus may be one of my absolute favourite books. I was swept away by the vivid imagery and magical atmosphere. It was enchanting. Every detail — each of the magical tents, the rich food, the 19th century clothing — was beautifully painted. It made the circus come off the page, as though it lived and breathed.

However, the one aspect that fell short was the love story between Celia and Marco. Although praised as “a love story for adults that feels luxuriously romantic” (The Washington Post), the progression didn’t feel nearly as believable as some other book couples (i.e. Elizabeth and Darcy, Rhett and Scarlett, Eleanor & Park, etc.). In fact, I found the first scene between Marco and Isobel to be far more touching. There was not a great deal of build-up or progress between Marco and Celia; it seemed that the love was very sudden and far too intense. I was never a fan of “love at first sight”; development is far more convincing and interesting.

This may have been because character development was not as prominent in the midst of the elaborate setting. I found the development of the children, Poppet, Widget, and Bailey, to be the most engaging characters. The adults breathed less than the circus itself and I did not feel as much emotional investment for the fates of the main characters. Despite this, The Night Circus was a brilliantly imaginative and complex story, successfully taking the reader to a different dimension.

ELEANOR & PARK

“Set over the course of one school year in 1986, Eleanor & Park is the story of two star-crossed misfits – smart enough to know that first love almost never lasts, but brave and desperate enough to try. When Eleanor meets Park, you’ll remember your own first love – and just how hard it pulled you under.”

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Eleanor & Park is a far less complex story than The Night Circus. Although greatly praised by adults, it is certainly the more YA of the two.

What I loved most about this book was how realistic and believable the story was. I love how gradually and smoothly the relationship progressed; there wasn’t a specific moment when the title characters fell in love. It wasn’t love at first sight; it just came upon them, innocently, and I think those are the best love stories because falling is the best part. Pride and Prejudice demonstrated this too, and I think that’s why Elizabeth and Darcy are one of the best loved literary couples in history (“I was in the middle before I knew I’d begun”).

I loved that we got both POVs from Eleanor and Park, and although the story was not groundbreaking or extraordinary intelligent or original, the characters became real enough to feel for (I cried at the end). I also was happy with the ending, because it wasn’t just a typical happily ever after. Ambiguity and sadness leave more of an impression and resonate more with people because that’s what most of reality is. There are sparks in the dark (as shown with Park’s parents) but it is all up to us, and life often makes things very hard. Things change constantly, and I think this book did a great job of bringing out that spark of youth and bliss in the midst of a grayer reality.

The pros and cons of these two phenomenal bestsellers contrast each other exactly and I found that very striking and note-worthy, as they give us perspective into what makes a good story. Incidentally, the next book I read was Lolita (Vladimir Nabokov), and that was a different story altogether.

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