The circus arrives unannounced with its black and white tents and the sign that reads, “Opens at Nightfall. Closes at Dawn.” As a crowd draws near at dusk, the lights come on to read Le Cirque des Rêves, and the doors open.
The opening of the novel prepares the reader for the visual stimulation of Le Cirque des Rêves, which is both enchanting because of its stark beauty and because it is infused with real magic.
New York, 1873: Prospero the Enchanter finishes his magic show to find a five-year-old girl waiting for him with a note pinned to her chest. The girl is his daughter, Celia, and the note is from her mother, who has just committed suicide. He reads the note, unmoved. He considers the girl, telling her that her mother should have named her Miranda, but that she wasn’t clever enough to think of it. Angered, the little girl begins shaking the teacups on the table with her mind. “You might be interesting,” he says to her. A few months later, Prospero (whose real name is Hector Bowen) writes a letter to an old friend.
This first meeting between Prospero (Hector) and his daughter sets the tone for their relationship going forward. He is completely uninterested in her as a person, and can only view her as a valuable tool in his rivalry with his friend and fellow magician. Magic will be the only thing that connects Celia to her father throughout her life, and this initial anger she feels towards him will always be a central part of that relationship as well. Meanwhile, the comment about how Celia should have been named “Miranda” is an allusion to Shakespeare’s The Tempest, in which Miranda is the daughter of an enchanter named Prospero.
London, 1873: Hector and Celia meet with a mysterious man in a gray suit, whom Hector calls Alexander, although that is not his real name. First, the man criticizes Hector for passing off real magic as illusion, and then the men get down to business. Hector asks Celia to demonstrate her magical skills for the man, and at first she is reluctant, as Hector has told her in the past to keep her magic a secret. However, she impresses Alexander with her abilities: she levitates a pocket watch and then shatters it with her mind. The two men agree to a competition, pitting Celia against the competitor of Alexander’s choosing. Alexander places a ring on Celia’s finger, which shrinks and burns itself into her finger, leaving a scar.
This meeting between Hector, Alexander (Mr. A.H.), and Celia sets in motion the magical competition that is at the center of the narrative. The rivalry between these two men is intense, as Mr. A.H. begins by criticizing the way Hector uses his magic. Yet this does not daunt Hector, who is determined to show off his daughter’s skills to a fellow magician. Neither man asks Celia if she would like to be part of a competition, and instead, Mr. A.H. scars her to bind her to something she is too young to understand.
The two magicians then discuss details of the competition and decide on a venue. Hector mentions that he knows of a theatrical producer named Chandresh Lefevre who could organize something appropriate. Alexander is uncomfortable with a public setting, but he finally relents, and the men also decide to have as few rules as possible, hoping to “push boundaries with this one.” Alexander is given the first move.
Once again, Celia is given no voice in the competition that will soon take over her life; Hector and Mr. A.H. make all of the decisions as if Celia is not even in the room, let alone at the core of the competition itself. Many of the men’s choices, such as the lack of formal rules in the competition, will have a profound impact on Celia’s life.
Alexander, whose name is really Mr. A.H., goes to a London orphanage to choose a child as his competitor. When he is presented with a nine-year-old boy with dark hair, the man throws his cane at the child, who catches it without flinching. Mr. A.H. chooses him as his new apprentice and tells him that they will leave right away. The boy asks if he has a choice, and Mr. A.H. responds by asking him if he wants to stay at the orphanage. He doesn’t want to stay, so they leave together. When the boy asks if the man wants to know his name, Mr. A.H. responds that the boy’s name “will not be necessary.”
While Hector found a suitable competitor in his own daughter, taking advantage of the innate magical abilities that she inherited from him, Mr. A.H. believes that he can find the right person and train them. The boy he chooses seems confused but also ready to leave the orphanage for a new life, whatever that will entail. Mr. A.H. establishes both his authority and his emotional distance, telling the boy he does not even want to learn his name.
1875-1880: Both Celia and the nameless boy go through a series of lessons in magic. Celia travels all over the United States and Europe with Hector for his magic shows, though he mainly abandons her in hotels or backstage. His lessons are irregular and unorthodox: Hector has Celia fix broken things with her mind, and he even slices her fingers open so she can heal herself, but Celia learns that she cannot repair living beings. He does not give her any information about the competition, however.
There are some parallels between the training that Celia and the boy receive from their respective teachers: they both suffer from a great deal of isolation, as their teachers focus obsessively on preparing them for the mysterious competition that lies ahead. Celia also suffers some level of physical abuse from her father, under the guise of teaching her to use her magic to heal herself.
The boy lives in isolation with Mr. A.H. and studies from books and lectures, sometimes leaving the house to visit museums and libraries during off-hours, and occasionally to attend magic shows. Finally, one day the man gives the boy a ring, just as he did with Celia, and it shrinks and burns into his finger, as well. Mr. A.H. tells the boy that he is bound to “an obligation” and to someone he hasn’t met yet. The boy wonders who it is, but knows not to ask.
The boy’s training is less physical and more intellectual, as he develops his magical skills through reading, research, and observing established magicians. When Mr. A.H. decides that the boy (later called Marco) is ready to be a competitor, he burns the ring into Marco’s finger, like he did with Celia, again without taking Marco’s desires into consideration in any way.
1884: At 19, the boy is living in his own flat in London and spends most of his time reading or taking long walks though the city. One evening he loses his notebook while out in the city, and he goes back to find a young woman reading it earnestly. He introduces himself as Marco Alisdair, the name he has chosen for himself, and she tells him her name is Isobel Martin, though he doubts that is her real name. They go out for a drink, and Isobel tells him that she understands some of the magic contained in his notebook; she herself can read tarot cards. Marco decides to show her some of his magic, which entrances her. He manipulates her perception of the world around her, so that the two of them are no longer on a rainy London street, but in a warm, glowing forest. They kiss.
Marco Alisdair is now a young adult, living on his own in London and continuing his studies on his own. Mr. A.H. never spent much time with the boy outside of his lectures, but now the man is nowhere to be found, leaving Marco completely alone. It is in this context that he meets Isobel, a young woman who is also alone in the world, and seems to understand or at least accept his magical studies. He dazzles her with his manipulations, and she provides him with a human connection. This is also the first time he uses his chosen name, taking on his new adult identity.
Hector Bowen has retired from the stage and has devoted himself full-time to training Celia and hiring her out as a spiritual medium. Celia finds the experience excruciating and argues that it is not worth the money her customers pay. Her father restricts her food to keep her thin and waif-like, and she is working so hard that, one day, she faints during a session. Her father finally relents and lets her rest for three days. She wonders about the competition, but he offers her no information except that she will need to practice before beginning.
Meanwhile, Hector Bowen continues to use his daughter for his own benefit. Instead of passing off magic as stage tricks, he is now able to have Celia pass off her magic as a spiritual connection with the dead. She hates the work, but again, she has no choice in the matter—her father is in control of her life, and even controls her body by severely restricting her eating. He only relents when she is physically unable to continue working—that is, when she can no longer benefit him.
Back in Marco’s flat, Marco shows Isobel a magic charm involving knots and intent. He asks her to think of an item that is important to her, and then reads her mind—she is thinking of a ring, an engagement ring from an arranged marriage that she managed to escape in Barcelona. Their conversation is interrupted by a knock at the door.
Marco’s relationship with Isobel deepens, as he shares his magical knowledge with her. She also gives him some details about her life, including the fact that she escaped an arranged marriage and is, in essence, running away from her past.
Isobel hides in the study while Marco answers the door. Mr. A.H. does not enter, but stands in the doorway to inform Marco that he will be applying for a position with Chandresh Lefevre, a theater producer, and Marco recognizes that this is the beginning of the competition. Mr. A.H. mentions that the young man needs a name, to which Marco responds that he has already chosen one. Finally, Mr. A.H. reminds him, looking pointedly at the door of the study, that he should focus on the competition and avoid distractions.
As he will do frequently throughout the novel, Mr. A.H. works behind the scenes like a puppeteer: he has arranged for Marco to work of the man who will plan the circus, which will be the venue for their competition. He signals his emotional distance from Marco by standing in the doorway to talk, and by criticizing Marco for his budding relationship with Isobel, which is not part of the competition.
Hector eventually decides to stay in New York rather than traveling with Celia, and he spends most of his time alone, locked in the parlor. One day Celia breaks into the room to find him working on a trick. His hand fades and then returns; he looks up at her and tells her it is none of her business what he is doing, and then slams the door in her face.
Hector is attempting to use very complex and dangerous magic in search of immortality. Though it would be a good idea to talk about this with Celia, he shuts her out, literally and figuratively.
Chandresh Lefevre is in his home, throwing a knife across the room at a dartboard covered with a newspaper clipping. The clipping is a review of Lefevre’s recent production, which was described as “almost transcendent.” The producer is incensed at the word “almost,” which to him is a sign of failure. He throws the knife for the last time, and then calls for Marco, his assistant.
Chandresh’s first appearance in the novel, throwing a knife across the room, foreshadows an incident later in the novel, when he does the same thing at the circus and accidentally kills an innocent man. His call for Marco indicates that the boy has followed Mr. A.H.’s orders and taken on this new job.
Concord, MA, 1897: A young boy named Bailey sits in an oak tree with his sister and their friends, playing Truth or Dare. On his turn, his sister dares him to break into the Night Circus. He agrees, recalling his previous night’s experience at the circus, noting that it was like “he had escaped his everyday life and wandered into another world.” He squeezes through the fence and wanders through the circus grounds until he comes upon a young girl with bright red hair. She tells him that he is not supposed to be there and helps him leave again. Before he goes, he asks for something to bring back as proof that he snuck in. The girl gives him one of her white gloves, calling him Bailey as he leaves the grounds. He only realizes once he is far from the circus that he never told the girl his name.
Bailey has already been charmed by the otherworldliness of the circus, but it is this daytime visit—while the circus is closed to outsiders—that will make the greatest impression on him. Specifically, it is the red-haired girl, who somehow knows his name, who will draw him back to the circus years later. Their first meeting also presents some irony in the story: while in this scene she asks Bailey to leave the circus because he does not belong, years later the same girl will come to invite him to join the circus, because it is where he is mean to be.
London, 1885: Chandresh Lefevre is known for his exclusive and extravagant Midnight Dinners. This one is different, though, because he invites a select group to help him design and execute a new kind of circus: there is Ethan Barris, who is an engineer and architect, as well as Tara and Lainie Burgess, who “do a little bit of everything” and will be indispensable for their keen eye for detail. There is also Mr. A.H., whose role in the circus is not specified. Once the guests are ready, Chandresh explains his plan and lays out sketches and notes. The guests are enthusiastic, and they all get down to work.
This first Midnight Dinner and planning party brings together some of the secondary characters of the novel: the organizers of the circus, most of whom have no magical abilities and are under the impression that they are simply planning a new and groundbreaking form of entertainment. Mr. A.H. is in attendance, however, and he will maintain a certain amount of quiet control over the circus throughout the novel.
Meanwhile, in New York, Celia Bowen is opening sympathy cards and flowers in memory of her father Hector, who has been announced dead of heart failure. There are letters mentioning his beautiful daughter, and some even include strange proposals of marriage. Celia notes sarcastically that she is already married, touching the ring that Mr. A.H. placed on her finger. She receives one card that only states, “Your move.” Confused, she goes to find her father, who is not dead—he is in a state of half-life, only partially visible to others, not unlike a ghost—and asks what it means. Hector only laughs.
The dangerous magic trick that Hector attempted went horribly wrong, forcing him into a state of half-life and forcing Celia to publicly announce his death. Her sarcastic comment that she is already married is a reminder that she has been bound to someone without her consent, though she still does not know to whom. The competition will begin soon, however, since the cryptic note is from Mr. A.H., to let Hector know that the venue will soon be open.
Chandresh conducts his Midnight Dinners about once a month to coordinate the details of his circus project. One evening, a heavily tattooed contortionist named Tsukiko arrives without warning and begins to perform for those in attendance. Chandresh hires her immediately, explaining that she is exactly what he wants for the circus.
Tsukiko the contortionist appears from out of nowhere, with no explanation as to how she knew about the dinner or the circus. She will also exert some subtle control over the circus from behind the scenes, and will help define the future of the circus itself.
In Munich, Ethan Barris meets with a clockmaker, Friedrick Thiessen, to commission a special clock for the circus. He explains that he wants something beyond what Thiessen has ever made before, “das Miesterwerk.” Barris specifies that it should be dreamlike, and that money is no issue. Thiessen creates a black-and-white clock that is perfect for the circus, according to Barris, and receives enough money to retire on. The clockmaker does not ask where the clock will be used, and he never thinks to go and visit it.
Both Friedrick Thiessen and the clock he makes for the circus will become emblematic of the venue. He is already a master craftsman, but when given a vague but inspiring request, he creates a true masterwork, which every visitor to the circus will see on their way in. While Thiessen does not wonder about his work and where it is being used, news of the masterful clock will reach him, years later.
London, 1886: The circus organizers are holding auditions for an illusionist, and Celia Bowen is one of the candidates. Marco is supervising the auditions, and when he sees Celia for the first time, he is struck by her beauty. Chandresh comments that she looks too young and pretty to be an illusionist, suggesting that she could be a lovely assistant. Celia simply mentions that she has studied with her father, Prospero the Enchanter, which impresses Chandresh enough to let her audition. She turns Marco’s notebook into a white dove, which takes flight across the theater, and changes the color of her dress in front of Chandresh’s eyes. Chandresh hires her immediately and has Marco dismiss the rest of the candidates. He expresses his condolences for her father’s death and asks what happened to him. Celia only responds that his most recent magic trick “did not go entirely as planned.”
All of the planning for the circus comes down to this moment, when Celia auditions to become the illusionist, therefore bringing both players together in a venue that was secretly designed for their competition. All of this is unknown to Chandresh, however, who believes that he is in control of the circus and these auditions. He nearly dismisses Celia out of hand, based on her youth and beauty, but gives her a chance when he hears who her father is. Like her father, Celia is passing off real magic as illusion, which will be one of her major contributions to the circus.
Marco is visibly shaken by his meeting with Celia, and Chandresh sends him home. He hurries back to search his books to try to understand how Celia performed her magic, and he ends up telling Isobel what happened. He has just realized that Celia is his opponent, and the circus is the venue for their competition. He is worried, however, because she is “too good.” Meanwhile, Isobel draws a single card from her tarot deck to reveal l’amoureaux, the lovers. Wanting to help Marco, Isobel offers to join the circus as a fortune-teller and keep watch over Celia, writing to Marco as often as she can.
Marco’s first encounter with Celia is upsetting to him for two reasons: he is first struck by her beauty, and then amazed by her magical abilities. Recognizing her as his rival, and a formidable one at that, Marco grows concerned about how he can win the competition. Isobel, on the other hand, can already foresee—thanks to her tarot cards—that these two may fall in love, and her offer to watch over Celia is partially in her own interest.
Concord, MA 1902: Bailey, the young boy who snuck into the circus, is at the center of a family disagreement. His grandmother wants him to go to Harvard, while his father is determined that he will inherit and take over the family farm. Originally, his grandmother wanted his younger sister to attend Radcliffe College, but their father had said no, and his sister gave in immediately. Their grandmother changed her plans, deciding that Bailey would go to Harvard, inviting him to have tea with her in Cambridge on a regular basis.
Bailey’s family is determined to decide his future for him, and the young boy has little to no control over the decisions. In addition, the adults in his life are not concerned with what is best for Bailey, but rather focusing on their own self-interest. His grandmother just wants one of the children to be near her in Cambridge, while his father decrees that his son must take over the farm.
Bailey would like to attend Harvard, and he discusses this with his mother and father, to no avail. At one of their teas, Bailey’s grandmother tells him she just wants him to have the opportunity to chase his dreams, whether they be Harvard or something else. His father, however, tells him he has no choice in the matter, and Bailey begins to spend as much time away from his home and family as possible. He is hiding out in the oak tree when he looks up and sees that the circus has returned.
Bailey seems to be inclined towards adventure and escape from the monotony of farm life, which does not seem to emotionally fulfill him. His grandmother inspires him by telling him to follow his dreams, advice that Bailey takes to heart. Too young to leave home yet, however, Bailey must find refuge in his own places outside of the house, including the oak tree, which incidentally gives him a good view of the circus when it is in town.