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The Queen of the Night

type
  • Book
genre

If Lilliet Berne were a man, she might have been what 19th-century novels would call a swashbuckler: the kind of destiny-courting, death-defying character who finds intrigue and peril (and somehow, always, a fantastic pair of pantaloons) around every corner.

As The Queen of the Night opens, she is already famous—one of the most celebrated opera singers in Europe, known nearly as much for her personal charisma and powerful connections as for her remarkable range. But the tales of her rumored romances and material excess aren’t nearly as interesting as the truth, which she unfurls over the next 500-plus pages—a story so full of baroque drama, borrowed identities, unnatural deaths, and double crosses it would impress the Count of Monte Cristo.

Lilliet isn’t even really her name, just the most lasting of all the aliases she assumes. Born on the American frontier and orphaned by her teens, she finds her first reinvention in a traveling circus as the Settler’s Daughter, a buckskinned cowgirl with only one song in her repertoire. It’s enough to bring her to Europe and open the door to all the incarnations that follow: chambermaid, courtesan, royal consort, wartime spy, and eventually, star soprano. Her past begins to resurface, though, when a young writer pens a libretto whose plot sounds a lot like the secrets she’s left behind.

Alexander Chee details Queen’s reams of source material in the endnotes, and the richness of his research is evident on every page. Paris’ glittering swirl of artists, aristocrats, and underworld habitués lives vividly in his descriptions; no gaslit château or jet-beaded evening dress goes unnoted or unadmired. Famed figures like Giuseppe Verdi, George Sand, and Ivan Turgenev are woven into the narrative, and the drumbeat of history thrums in the political power struggles to which Lilliet plays witness. (The masked woman on the cover is an actual Italian contessa; she’s in the book, too, though her exploits were even more outrageous than Chee has room to recount.)

If the novel has a real flaw, it’s that Lilliet’s interior world never comes quite as alive as the three-dimensional one she moves through. After so many years of shedding skins, it’s as if she doesn’t know how to fully inhabit her own. Instead, like any good star, she wears whatever mask she (and Chee) thinks her audience wants to see. B+

The Queen of the Night
2016 book
type
  • Book
genre
author
  • Alexander Chee
publisher
  • Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

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