February 2, 2016
In the Paris of the Second French Empire, what did it take to rise from courtesan to diva? From a ferociously talented writer who is "the fire, in my opinion. And the light" (Junot Diaz) comes a blazing portrait of a woman who creates her own fate.
Lilliet Berne is a sensation of the Paris Opera with every accolade except one: she has never created an original role, every singer’s chance at immortality. When she is approached with an offer to do just that, it comes with a caveat—the opera must be based on a secret from her past that she has thought long buried. Who has exposed her? In pursuit of answers she’s drawn back into her past. An orphan who left the American frontier in search of her mother’s family in Europe, Lilliet was swept up in the glitzy, gritty world of Paris at the height of Napoleon III’s rule. There she transformed herself from hippodrome rider to courtesan, from maid to Empress Eugenie to debut singer, weaving a complicated web of romance, obligation, and political intrigue. With endless twists, a cast of characters drawn from history, and a captivating, resourceful heroine, The Queen of the Night tells its story through the transformations of Lilliet as she sheds role after role, moving with every step closer to the spotlight of the Parisian stage—a spotlight that may reveal the secrets she has fought to keep.
Alexander Chee’s soaring rags-to-riches tale is set in the world of nineteenth-century opera amidst the decadence of Napoleon III’s reign. Lilliet goes from farm girl who becomes a circus entertainer to the darling of the opera world, a powerful voice who rarely speaks. The story starts at the height of her career and a man approaches her wishing to write an original role for her. He insists that a composer, a protégé of Verdi, will write the opera. The story he wishes to tell is her own, carefully hidden past, leaving her to wonder who could have betrayed her. Chee then takes us back and forth in time, moving the story ever forward, finally coming full circle back to the circus.
Characters who echo the stock cast of the operatic world populate Chee’s novel: the vindictive madam, the lovesick tenor who will do anything to have Lilliet even if she hates him for it, the doomed true love, the doting mentor, and scheming, power-hungry aristocrats clinging to their power even as their world crashes around them. fictionalized historical figures play some of the roles, but most are original creations and serve it well. Like the opera singer she is now, Lilliet has played multiple characters in her life — circus equestrian, courtesan, mute maid to the Empress, spy, lover, and opera star. This shouldn’t work, yet for the most part, Chee pulls it off. We watch. the over-large drama of opera always in the back of our mind, as characters act out their fates, moved along to an ending we see coming, but watch with anticipation for the sheer spectacle.
The Queen of the Night is spectacle; rich description from the fine details of the Empress’ and opera gowns to the horrors of a starving, war-torn Paris; grand characters, stage worthy in scope and scale; near fantastical plot full of intrigue and fate and coincidence, moving from fortune to failure and back again repeatedly.
Those who love history or opera will find plenty here to immerse themselves in. Chee brings those two into service of his own opera – which is the opera-worthy story of Lilliet, who, in a rich irony, has finally reached a level as an opera soprano where a composer wishes to originate a role that turns out to be the literal story of her life. But for Lilliet, like most women in opera, nothing will go her way.
It is possible for a singer to use too much ornamentation, where the coloratura lends nothing to the emotion of the story, but rather is showing off the skill of the singer. Like a vocalist over-singing, Chee’s description proves to be a distraction: at times his lingering focus and delving into minutia slows the pace to a crawl and drains the vitality of the story. His writing immerses us in the world but also distances us from the emotion needed to fully sympathize with Lilliet. In the end, Lilliet proved fascinating but unknowable and distant through much of the novel.
Despite the flaw, The Queen of the Night worked on many levels and ultimately entertained.