Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: February 2nd 2016
Alexander Chee’s new novel, The Queen of the Night works well for cold winter reading because you will need to settle in to really enjoy this massive piece of entertainment. This is not a book to skim through, like any grand diva, attention must be paid. And this Chee does by creating a world overflowing with the sumptuous and the over-the-top for Lilliet Berne, one of the Paris Opera’s best known sopranos. The novel opens in the 1880s when Lilliet is at the height of her fame. A composer offers her a libretto written specifically for her, something she has yet to achieve in her career.
Of all the accolades heaped at my feet, the one I lacked for was the honor of originating a role, a part written precisely for my voice…For a singer, this was your only immortality. All the rest would pass.
It is troubling then, that when she reads this story it is not just written for her voice, but is the actual truth about her life, something only four people in Paris know. So launches her journey back into her past to find out who might be trying to blackmail her with knowledge that would not serve her well in her most recent incarnation.
There is no detail in The Queen of the Night that is too small for Chee and his knowledge of opera and the world of Paris in the late 1800s is immense. That he can funnel all this detail into a book that dips and soars with Lilliet’s life is astonishing. Within a year she goes from being an American orphan to an acrobatic horseback rider to a courtesan to living in a convent to being a seamstress for the Empress of France. The one constant in her life is the gift of her voice and after these trials she begins to use it and to get training in how to perfect and protect it. But even then there is a price to be paid and her greatest protectors are a man who owns her and a woman who uses her for her own ends. Even as the years pass and she gains success as a singer there is always the reminder that her life is not quite her own.
Not surprisingly, Chee gives The Queen of the Night a structure that feels operatic in its range. Lilliet’s life follows the path of all true opera heroines in her humble beginnings, misspent youth, lost love, grand exploits, betrayals and intrigue. The cast is a varied and grand one and the degree to which Chee fills every detail of their being makes for reading that is almost visual. The gowns of Empress Eugenie, the training a singer must endure, life in a prison or in the halls of the Tuileries Palace—all told with an intricacy that reads like a movie. With so many moving parts there are points when the scenery upstages the play and it can be too much. But even with these wobbles in the plot The Queen of the Night will hit its notes for lovers of drama and opera.
I knew I had succeeded when it felt like my throat were a spindle, the voice a thread, the stage some vast loom for something drawn from me into the air, where it caught and filled out to fit the shape of something greater, greater than all of us onstage and that only visited me there.