I received an ARC of this title from the publisher, via Netgalley.
The Queen of the Night takes opera for its inspiration, but not just because it tells the story of an opera singer. The very structure and form of the story are deeply influenced by opera, which by its nature is not a genre that relies on realism, but rather takes pride in the grand gestures and mythological dimensions of its stories. It’s a synthesis of the ridiculous and the sublime, where the beauty of the music and skill of the artists counterbalance the overwrought events to produce something that is difficult to describe.
I’m having the same difficulty in trying to describe why the book works as well as it does. I could give the basics of the plot in a few simple sentences and the story would sound absolutely ridiculous—too convoluted and dramatic to be anything other than 19th century novel pastiche. And yet it does work. In the same way that the music of an opera keeps the story from being absurd (mostly), Alexander Chee’s skill keeps Queen from devolving into histrionics (mostly).
The story is ostensibly a mystery, though it also proves to be a bildungsroman in many ways. Lilliet Berne, in top 19th century novel form, is an orphan with a tragic past, left to survive a world that isn’t made for single young women. We know from the very beginning that she achieves fame as a diva soprano, but the journey there is positively byzantine, full of so much incident and reversal that it puts many opera plots to shame. Lilliet inhabits so many roles throughout her life—farm girl, circus performer, prostitute, courtesan, prisoner, servant, spy—it can be hard to believe she could have any energy left over for performing further roles on the stage, but it certainly prepared her to be very good at it.
Chee’s writing is evocative, both of the richly imagined setting and the complex psychology of his heroine, but also dispassionate in tone. This deliberate style puts us at a bit of an emotional remove from Lilliet, who narrates the story, which I think is actually a clever move on Chee’s part, since it allows the story to maintain equilibrium as the plot starts requiring more and more energy to suspend disbelief. If Lilliet were half as dramatic as her life story would seem to require from an actual 19th century heroine, she would be unbearable. But Chee limits the influences of 19th century style to setting and clothing (anyone who appreciates a good outfit will love this), giving us a much more modern, or even post-modern sense of inner life and psychology. Lilliet is often acutely aware of the limitations imposed on her by being a woman of her time and place, but her story is free from the moralizing and self-pity this could potentially invite. I often felt frustrated and angry with Liliet’s world, but she rarely gives in to those feelings herself, but rather approaches most things like the realist and survivor that she is.
Despite finding Chee’s choice of tone a wise one, I find that there is still a price to be paid for the emotional distance it creates. While I was often swept up in the details—the sumptuous gowns, the elaborate intrigue, the famous cameos by the likes of Verdi—I was much rarely as deeply invested in Lilliet’s struggles. I root for her and feel frustrated on her behalf, and yet find myself oddly ambivalent. There is also the small matter of a love story that fails to convince me, but I can also chalk this up to Chee’s use of The Magic Flute as a direct influence and the failure of that work to convince anyone that love at first sight (or really before first sight) is at all believable. Chee spent more than a decade researching and writing The Queen of the Night, and it shows in nearly every scene. That I’m left with some ambivalence about Lilliet and her life actually feels intentional, even if it leaves me a little cold. It is not totally free of the clichés and tropes that are the usual fare in historical fiction, but Chee has succeeded in creating a story that, while it wears many of its influences on its sleeve, doesn’t sacrifice complexity to period piece window dressing.
(Book Riot Read Harder Challenge category: Historical fiction set before 1900)