Author: Alexander Chee
Hardcover: 576 pages
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 1 edition (February 2, 2016)
Lilliet Berne is a sensation of the Paris Opera, a legendary soprano with every accolade except an original role, every singer’s chance at immortality. When one is finally offered to her, she realizes with alarm that the libretto is based on a hidden piece of her past. Only four could have betrayed her: one is dead, one loves her, one wants to own her. And one, she hopes, never thinks of her at all.
As she mines her memories for clues, she recalls her life as an orphan who left the American frontier for Europe and was swept up into the glitzy, gritty world of Second Empire Paris. In order to survive, she transformed herself from hippodrome rider to courtesan, from empress’s maid to debut singer, all the while weaving a complicated web of romance, obligation, and political intrigue.Featuring a cast of characters drawn from history, The Queen of the Night follows Lilliet as she moves ever closer to the truth behind the mysterious opera and the role that could secure her reputation — or destroy her with the secrets it reveals.
A few weeks ago while browsing new releases on Goodreads, I stumbled across The Queen of the Night. The cover immediately stood out to me, so I had to know more. After I read the synopsis, I was sold. I ordered it via Amazon and eagerly awaited its arrival.
Is there anything better than opening up a book order? The smell of a brand new book? The crisp pages? Its like bookish crack 🙂 Once I opened this baby up, I realized how big this book actually was… This chunkster is a whopping 576 pages of hardback massiveness. To be honest, it was a little intimidating at first…
Have you ever finished a book and wasn’t sure how you felt about it? This doesn’t happen to me often, but it did with The Queen of the Night. Generally after finishing a book, I will immediately log on to Goodreads to mark it as complete, and give the book a star rating. This was the first book in a long time that I didn’t know what rating to give the book. I am going to start off with the positives about the book, then move to my issues with the book.
Chee sure knows how to spin a tragic tale. Wow. As some of you may know, I love gothic style novels that are tragic in nature. The Queen of the Night makes Romeo and Juliet look like a comedy. If you want a feel-good book, you won’t get that here. It is truly hard to put into words the essence of Lilliet’s story… It’s as if her entire life was spent under the control of others, fighting to obtain her freedom. Every time she breaks free from a captor, she finds herself enslaved by another. It almost reminded me of Homer’s The Odyssey in the sense that it’s as if she is trying to get home, but one incident after another prohibits her from reaching her destination.
I found the details of the 19th century French opera to be a fascinating and alluring. It is obvious that the author completed extensive research in this area of history in order to write a novel that was true to the era. I had never really contemplated opera, or its history prior to this novel Operas were a major form of entertainment during this time, much like movies & music is to us today. Opera singers were the celebrities of the time, comparable to the singers, actors, & actresses of the present. While reading this book, It struck me as interesting that many of the themes: social climbing, power, fashion, money, success, etc, all still ring true in our current entertainment industry. Some things never change. Several historical figures appear in this book. The most famous, at least someone I had heard of before, was Giuseppe Verdi. Note that these historical figures make brief appearances and are not central to the plot. You can learn more about the French opera in the 19th century here.
And now to the part of the review that I hate writing. Seriously though, I dread writing criticism. Who am I, a non-writer, to criticize someone’s art? Can’t we all just give 5-star reviews and all live in harmony? Alas, we cannot. Here goes nothing…
Chee’s writing style is unlike any I had read before. The biggest distinction would have to be his lack of quotation marks… and by lack of, I mean that he doesn’t use them. At all. Figuring out who was saying what caused me a lot of frustration and confusion at first. Aside from the quotation mark thing, he also does not indicate to the reader when a jump to the past occurs. The story shifts back and forth in time, telling Lilliet’s present and past, however the reader has to pick up the context clues to figure out whether the passage was taking place in the present, or the past. Towards the beginning of the book, I found myself having to re-read the text in order to sort out what was happening. It took me a good quarter of the book to adapt to Chee’s writing style. Once I got the hang of it, I wasn’t lost as much and did not have to do as much re-reading.
In my opinion, what would benefit this book the most would be either to “trim the fat,” or to have made it into two or more books. Not that any of the book is exactly “fat,” but it was simply too much for one book. About 75% through this book, I was really starting to struggle with finishing, not because the book was not entertaining, but because it is so long and so tragic that it was exhausting.
Lastly, I had trouble connecting with the main character, Lilliet. With as much misfortune that falls upon Lilliet, you would think the reader would sympathize with her… but I found myself struggling to feel any compassion for her. This was mostly due to the fact that Lilliet was emotionless throughout the book. Now, mind you, the author could have intentionally made her detached, however I wanted the feelings and emotions that come with catastrophe. I wanted to feel her despair. I wanted to root for her to overcome adversity, and succeed, but I just couldn’t. Lilliet just didn’t feel human to me.
I wanted to adore this book. I had very high expectations. Was the bar set too high from the beginning? Maybe. I still think this book is a worth while read if you enjoy historical fiction. Chee is a enthralling storyteller, but the execution fell a little flat. Shortening the book (or dividing it into two parts), tweaking the writing mechanics, and making the main character more human, would benefit this book and make it that 5 star rating from me.
*I do need to add that I was informed by a fellow blogger, Connie @Life in the Realm of Fantasy, that the audiobook version, narrated by Lisa Flanagan, was well done. If you are interested in this book, listening to it via audiobook may be the way to go!
“The curse is not that we cannot choose our Fate. The curse, the curse we all live under, is that we can.”
– The Queen of the Night
My Rating: 3/5 stars
Have you read this book? What were your thoughts?
About the Author
Alexander Chee is the author of the novels Edinburgh and The Queen of the Night, forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in February of 2016. He is a contributing editor at The New Republic, and an editor at large at VQR. His essays and stories have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, Tin House, Slate, Guernica, NPR and Out, among others. He is winner of a 2003 Whiting Award, a 2004 NEA Fellowship in prose and a 2010 MCCA Fellowship, and residency fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the VCCA, Civitella Ranieri and Amtrak. He has taught writing at Wesleyan University, Amherst College, the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Columbia University, Sarah Lawrence College and the University of Texas – Austin. He lives in New York City, where he curates the Dear Reader series at Ace Hotel New York.