“There was a question I wanted answered more than I wanted anything else, and it could take my life to answer it. The question was, What could I be?”
Opera fans will no doubt recognize the name of the soprano role (requiring two very difficult arias) from Mozart’s The Magic Flute in the title of Alexander Chee’s second novel, The Queen of the Night*. This is appropriate not only because the novel borrows, to some extent, the structure and themes of that opera, but because it is a virtuoso performance, showcasing its author’s range, technical skill, and complete command of its characters’ complexities. This is a novel about love, identity, deception, sacrifice, courage, calling, and tragedy.
As The Queen of the Night opens, soprano sensation Lilliet Berne is the talk of late-nineteenth-century Paris, and she’s just been made an impressive offer: a mysterious composer, supposedly the protégé of her friend Verdi, is writing an opera based on a novel, and he wants her to create the starring role. This is the one accolade that has eluded her in a short but distinguished career. However, when she realizes with alarm that the novel is based on her own life—a life, with all its secrets, that’s been carefully masked—she must go in search of old enemies and friends to determine the intentions behind the work.
Thus we’re drawn into the story of Lilliet’s absorbing, fantastic life, filled with the highs and lows of grand opera, with its patterns, as she notes, of alternating victory and defeat. From the frozen farmland of Minnesota to a traveling circus in France, from Paris’s houses of ill repute to the basement of the Tuileries palace, Lilliet’s next step is always unexpected.
“How many women are you?” a lover asks her. “A legion,” she replies. She’s a farmer’s daughter, a bareback horse rider in a circus, a courtesan, a servant, a spy, and a soprano. Each role is a mask (one of her teachers, asking her to perform emotions with her facial expression, not her eyes, even says, “Your face appears to be only a mask . . . if you can master this, you can give and never give away anything.”), a necessary deception when nobody she knows can be trusted.
Mr. Chee’s command of his characters and setting is astounding; it’s hard to fathom just how much research went into the novel (though the acknowledgments section gives us a hint; I wonder how much was left on the cutting room floor) to produce gorgeous, detailed passages like these:
The trunks were made by Louis Vuitton in a pale gray known as Trianon gray, her favorite gray. It was as if the Empress were secretly something enormous, disassembled in the morning dark, her various parts in the neat rows of boxes and trunks we’d prepared and brought up to the surface.
The period detail throughout the novel is amazing, as are Mr. Chee’s evocations of the different historical figures Lilliet encounters, from Eugenie, Empress of the French, to the mezzo, composer, and teacher Pauline Viardot, the Verdis, George Sand, and Ivan Turgenev. His descriptions of music are beautiful, and I found myself seeking out arias from Carmen, The Magic Flute, and Il Trovatore for the first time in some years (I studied opera in high school, but clearly my life went in a very different direction, Dear Readers).
The Queen of the Night’s grand style and thematic intensity falters only in occasional cases of editorial oversight (for example, at one point Lilliet stands, narrates a bit, and is then helped to stand again, unnecessarily). But in a novel this long and this complex, I almost feel that this is a quibble.
I highly recommend The Queen of the Night. It’s a grand entertainment, and a moving story, like the best operas themselves.
Near the end of the book, Lilliet says,
I think you can never know what you can live without. I think you can never know what you will live through. Only when the disaster arrives and you are there does the depth of your real inner resources reveal itself, and not a moment before.
The Queen of the Night is the tale of what one woman can live without, and what she can live through. Up to the last page, you won’t be sure whether her pattern ends with victory or defeat, but you’ll be cheering, like all Lilliet’s admirers, “Vive La Générale!”
*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which in no way affected the content of my review.