The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee
I’ve been a bit of a slacker when it comes to this book. I received a galley a while ago (although to be fair I received it after the publication date) and have only just gotten around to reading it. Here’s what I thought…The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee
First published: February 2nd, 2016
Rating: 3.5 stars
Reviewed by: Jen
Find it/buy it here: The Queen of the Night
Many thanks to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and Netgalley for providing me with an advance copy of this novel in exchange for my honest review.
I love opera and The Magic Flute was the first opera I really enjoyed as a child. Alexander Chee’s novel is an homage to opera. The title comes from a character in the Magic Flute, who is known as the Queen of the Night. The Queen of the Night’s aria is known to be one of the most difficult pieces of music to perform. As I child, I used to try and sing it all around the house and in likelihood achieved sounding like a drowning cat. If you would like to listen to a fantastic rendition of the aria, listen to the clip below with the amazing Diana Damrau in the role of the Queen of the Night.
The Queen of the Night in Chee’s book is a character named Lilliet Berne although in many respects, Lilliet is more like Pamina (the Queen’s daughter) than she is like the Queen of the Night. When we are first introduced to Lilliet, she is already a sensation of the Paris Opera. Lilliet is approached by a mysterious young writer who asks presents her with a libretto for an original opera and requests that she consider starring in the opera when it is complete. Lilliet is horrified to learn that the libretto is based on her own life and past that she has worked hard to keep hidden. She immediately knows that she has been betrayed by one of four people and she sets out to find the culprit.
The novel goes back and forth in time with flashbacks uncovering Lilliet’s past as an orphan who left America for Europe and who along the way gets swept up into all kinds of unfortunate situations. The plot is intentionally melodramatic to mimic the plot of a majority of operas. Lilliet’s life is filled with a very complicated web of connections and her story is rife with political intrigue. It is a rags to riches story with romance, scheming, betrayals, dramatic escapes, war, and secrets galore. Chee weaves in a large cast of characters, some real historical figures like writer Ivan Turgenev, George Sand, the Empress Eugénie, and soprano Pauline Viardot-Garcia.
I thoroughly enjoyed the book and overall think it will be a book that many people enjoy. It is clearly very well researched and meticulously crafted. It’s hard for me to pinpoint why I didn’t love it. I generally don’t enjoy very melodramatic plots because they feel unrealistic and often strike me as trying too hard to elicit emotions from readers. This is not really a fair criticism since I knew going in that it would be melodramatic given it is an homage to opera. In some ways, the scope of the novel, and the incorporation of real world figures, reminded me of Alexandre Dumas’ work and I think that worked against this novel because quite frankly, I think Dumas did it better. This novel was so ambitious in its attempt to draw parallels between opera plots and the main character’s life while at the same time outlining historical events, people, and relationships that I felt it could only touch the surface.
I also felt somewhat emotionally disconnected from Lilliet. Despite all the melodrama and big emotional moments, I felt oddly removed from the emotion and I found Lilliet to be oddly removed too. She is clearly a strong character but her strength in all moments takes some emotions away from the experience. I would have liked to see some vulnerabilities in addition to the strength in order to feel more connected to her and her struggles.
Regardless, I do recommend this book to opera lovers and those who like dramatic plots within the context of historical fiction. The writing is very strong and Chee is clever in the ways in which he weaves connections between his story and elements of both operas plots and the opera world (e.g., featuring real singers and prominent historical figures who supported the opera). You don’t need to be an opera lover to love this book because the opera references are not at all pretentious. In fact, by the end of the book Chee may have converted a few readers into opera lovers. As Lilliet describes:
This, however, was my first experience of the ridiculous and beloved thief that is opera – the singer who sneaks into the palace of your heart and somehow enters the stage singing aloud the secret hope or love or grief you hoped would always stay secret, disguised as melodrama; and you are so happy you have lived to see it done. The singer singing to you with the full force of what you feel is transfigured and this transfigures you; you fell as if it were you in the opera, the opera your story, the story of your life.
First Sentence: When it began, it began as an opera would begin, in a palace, at a ball, in an encounter with a stranger who, you discover, has your fate in his hands
Last sentences: And I would tell him as we rise into the air, The curse is not that we cannot choose our Fates. The curse, the curse we all live under is that we can.
Want to try it for yourself? You can find your copy here: The Queen of the Night
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