Book 101: The Queen of the Night



"I wanted to eat and so I learned to sing. I am the same as the woman who on a winter afternoon roasts chestnuts from the Bois de Boulogne and sells them so she can buy her dinner. It took more than a witch to make a singer out of me. And if it was a gift from God that made me this way, it was the gift He gave us all, called hunger."

Dates read: November 1-6, 2016

Rating: 9/10

As an older millennial (I was born in 1985), I didn't grow up immersed in the digital world, but I also don't remember much of a world before computers. All my papers were written in Word, I've been doing research on the internet since high school, and I've had Facebook since it was rolled out to the first round of non-Ivies, the second semester of my freshman year of college. Sometimes I wonder what it must have been like to live in a world where our lives weren't so tied to the internet. Where you could move to a new place and be a new person because there wasn't a trail of easily accessible information following you wherever you went. It's kind of mind-boggling, honestly.

An ever-changing identity is the centerpiece of Alexander Chee's The Queen of the Night. We're introduced to Lilliet Berne at the height of her fame as an operatic soprano in Paris in the 1870s. She's approached by a man who says he can give her the one honor that she hasn't attained so far: a role she can originate. The only snag is that the new opera is based on a novel that's clearly based on her own past, a past she thought she'd managed to escape from. There are only a handful of people who know her real life, and she determines to find out which one of them has betrayed her.

The book is a recounting of the story of her life, with one incredible circumstance leading directly into another: she grows up in frontier America and sets out to get to Switzerland, where she has relatives, once her entire family dies. In order to make it overseas, she joins a circus, from which she escapes to become a hippodrome rider, and then becomes a prostitute, and then a handmaid to the Empress of France, and finally an opera singer in training. She becomes an figure of obsession to a professional tenor and he dogs her steps, determined to possess her entirely, even while she tries to elude him and falls in love with another man. She does eventually find out who is behind the mysterious new opera and it seems for a while that she might even get a happy ending...but this is a story about opera, and operas don't usually have one of those.

If you read that plot outline and thought it sounds insane, you're right. IT'S BONKERS. But it's really good! I tend to be irritated by plots that require too many convenient contrivances, but with this book it's best to put logic aside and just enjoy the ride, because it is a fantastic, soapy trip that Chee takes us on. It's a bit on the long side, but it doesn't get bogged down anywhere...you might think that with the list of twists and turns that Lilliet's life takes, that it would feel cluttered or get hard to keep track of what was going on, but Chee is in control of his story and characters, and creates a vivid, lively world that was hard to tear myself away from.

This is one of those books that I kept promising myself I would stop at the end of the chapter to go to sleep, and was hard pressed to resist just one more after that before turning out the light. My one quibble would be that in a book full of evocative characters, Lilliet herself is a bit of a cipher. But, given the many shifts in her circumstances and role she is meant to play, too big of a personality wouldn't feel quite right either. Her most defining feature is her determination to survive...no matter what comes around the bend, she always manages to figure out a way to adapt and keep going. That's a powerful statement in and of itself. Overall, though, this is a very enjoyable read and I would heartily recommend it!

Tell me, blog friends...have you ever wished you could start fresh someplace new?

One year ago, I was reading: this book!

Two years ago, I was reading: Primitive Mythology

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