The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee is being billed by its publisher as, “a literary tour de force.” Telling the story of Lilliet Berne, a 19th-century soprano with a frankly dizzying back-story, the novel spans from the USA to Paris, from Lilliet’s humble beginnings as a farmer’s daughter to her ascent as a confidante of Comtesses and a sought after singer. It is not a book lacking in drama or foreshadowing sentences like this:
If I had known everything that was to come, I might have fled, run back to the show, and continued on, away from Paris, never to return. But it is too soon to speak more of this.
Unfortunately, for a number of reasons, it is lacking in some other areas. Lilliet is what is known as a “falcon soprano,” meaning that her voice is so fragile that it could desert her at any moment. By the time she is told this, she’s already quite accustomed to staying mute, and so opting to never actually speak at all isn’t such a stretch for our main character; it is, however, a problematic development for a reader who occasionally likes a bit of dialogue to break up the endless description. Lilliet’s renowned status as “la muette” ultimately means she spends the whole novel being told things by other characters (usually men, and the things they’re telling her are usually rather distasteful) and faking her own death.
Yes, you read that correctly. If one were to play a The Queen of the Night drinking game and opted to take a shot every time Lilliet pretended to have died and re-emerged as someone else entirely, one would not be much use at work the next day. The same applies to the number of times her narration goes something along the lines of “but I’ll explain that later.” There’s a repetitiveness to the novel which becomes somewhat monotonous, dulling the effects of later dramatic events simply because what has come before was equally dramatic and increasingly unbelievable.
I was unbearably kind or unbelievably cruel, more beautiful than a woman could be or secretly hideous, supernaturally pale or secretly mulatto, or both, the truth hidden under a plaster of powder. I was innocent or I was the devil unleashed, I had nearly caused wars, I had kept them from happening. I was never in love, I had never loved, I was always in love.
About midway through The Queen of the Night (coincidentally, about the same time I realized it had nothing to do with the Whitney Houston song of the same title, despite Lilliet often boasting “the stuff that you want” and “the thing that you need”), I resolved to read it in the fashion of a guilty pleasure, approaching it in the same way that I would a large cupcake or, indeed, listening to the greatest hits of Whitney Houston: do we gain anything beneficial from these experiences? Probably not. Are they enjoyable anyway? Ideally, yes. Once I determined, despite its weighty page count, that The Queen of the Night is not a work of groundbreaking literary fiction, I was able to enjoy it more for its silliness and melodrama. Some time ago, I reviewed Elizabeth Strout’s My Name Is Lucy Barton here at Fourth and Sycamore and praised its immense subtlety; The Queen of the Night is essentially the anti-Lucy Barton, in that where Strout’s protagonist gently whispers of her struggles, Chee’s novel is a marching band shouting right in your ear about Napoleon and foot fetishism. I am certain that this will make it an enjoyable reading experience for many – francophile foot fetishists, for one. It is worth taking into account, additionally, that I am in no way whatsoever a fan of opera, and so the many references to that whole area went right over my uncultured head. I imagine that for an opera aficionado, The Queen of the Night would be a more pleasurable reading experience.
My feeling on finishing The Queen of the Night is that it really wants to be Les Misérables but is more like Malice by Danielle Steele: a novel I borrowed from my mother once while on holiday and which rendered me unable to look her in the eye for some time. I appreciate that there will be readers who will lap up the non-stop action and who don’t require a level of realism which borders on masochism from their historical novels, and I hope those readers find and enjoy this book. My level of exhaustion on completing it, however, made me long for a more Lucy Barton-esque tome in which everyone sits down all the time and eschews all opportunities to fake their own death.
The Queen of the Night is available now at Greenville Public Library.