The Queen of the Night, Alexander Chee, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016, 553 pp
I loved this book. Not because it is perfect but because it is a great big huge dramatic tale with a heroine I almost wish I could have been. Lilliet Berne is an opera diva in Paris. It is the 1800s and she has secrets including her real name, how she got to Paris, and some of the things she had to do to get where she is. An orphan, a survivor of the fever that killed her family on a Minnesota homestead, and born with a rare soprano voice. What's more, she feels certain she is under a curse.
When the story opens, she has one last achievement she longs for--an original role, meaning the lead in an opera written for her, and thus a chance at immortality. When the role comes her way, the curse determines that it could expose her worst secrets and ruin her. Only four people know what those secrets are.
The plot therefore is a construct of her search for those people combined with the story of her life. It has a pattern: victory, defeat, victory, defeat, victory, defeat, a pattern that spells tragedy.
Set in the days of Napoleon III and his Empress Eugenie, it is an opulent Paris layered on to the lower world of servants, prostitutes, and profligates. Lilliet is at the mercy of a famous tenor who believes he owns her, in love with a mysterious composer, and beholden to an evil Comtesse for reasons partly unknown to her.
Best of all though is Lilliet's impossible quest for freedom. She is forever seeking to escape her perceived destiny. As she says on page 25, "Why was there never an opera that ended with a soprano that was free?"
Alexander Chee has so completely created a 19th century novel that I was there, all through the twists and turns up to the surprising climax. It took me nine days to read because his sentences do not allow fast reading. I let him set the pace, succumbed to the atmosphere, worried about Lilliet as I am aware I was supposed to, and met his terms.
This is a larger than life story, like a legend or an opera. Lilliet is an almost fantastical creature, but show me an artist of any kind who becomes successful and renowned who isn't a bit beyond mere human.
(The Queen of the Night is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)