The Short Version: A young orphan from America makes her way to Paris and then to the world stage as an acclaimed soprano – passing through the roles of carny, maid, courtesan, spy, and more on her way. But when she reads a novel that seems to lay bare the secrets of her life, she wonders who from her past might be planning her downfall…
The Review: Opera and literature aren’t too far apart, really. Both provide opportunities for life to take on extraordinary qualities, for coincidence to appear like fate, and for clear lines of storytelling to cut through an otherwise impenetrable universe. I love reading, as you well know – and I have cultivated a love for opera, one that got off to a fitful start in Boston but bloomed upon arriving in New York. (For the curious/uninitiated, might I recommend the La Traviata currently in rep at the Met – it truly changed my world.) Naturally, I expected The Queen of the Night to be a perfect combination.
And, at times, it was. The opening strikes exactly the tone I had hoped for: “When it began, it began as an opera would begin, in a palace, at a ball, in an encounter with a stranger who, you discover, has your fate in his hands.” The ensuing pages are full of heightened language, elegant men and beautiful gowns, dazzling displays of wealth and culture… and a mystery. The opening chapter sets up the promise of that opening line: that this novel will play out like an opera. For a moment, I thought it might even be playing out an opera I knew (I considered, among others, Tosca) – but I quickly realized that this was the vein of historical novel featuring a fictional character who would move through the real world. Lilliet would be telling a story all her own – and, indeed, that’s what drives the action of the novel, when you boil it all down: Lilliet’s story and her attempt(s) to control it.
Much of the novel turns out to be the recounting of memory: the mystery introduced in those early pages is that Lilliet has been given a novel, set to be adapted into an opera, that features the story of her life in detail that only a few people could possibly know. As she visits each of them, her life story spins out in extended flashback, leaving the present-tense action actually pretty thin on the ground. The mystery is less important for being a mystery than it is for being a vehicle to send us back into Lilliet’s history – which is, admittedly, a pretty epic and tumultuous one. She’s American-born, fleeing the country after her family dies of fever, and she comes to Europe with the intention of trying to make it to the home of her aunt – but she ends up falling in with a circus, befriending (and then becoming) a prostitute, becoming a kept woman and soprano-in-training, running away, pretending to be a mute in the service of both the Empress and her chief rival, and eventually making it to the top of her profession as diva. A lot happens, as you can no doubt guess, and I found that about a third of the way into the novel, I’d rather forgotten about the mystery altogether and was only reminded of it when the novel jolted briefly back to the present, often only in order to introduce the next stage in Lilliet’s past.
As such, when the mystery is ‘resolved’ in the final quarter of the book, I had no investment in it. I was not surprised either, based on everything I’d just read: it was pretty obvious, both in the parsing of all-too-obvious clues in the text and in the general shape of the melodramatic, operatic plot. But I have to admit, I wasn’t just not-surprised. I was, in fact, rather put off by the novel by this point – largely having to do with the fact that Lilliet never lets the reader in. At times, this seemed like a choice: she’s carefully guarded and wants, desperately, to control the story of her life (both as being told and as being lived). But more often than not, it felt like it was because there was no there there. I simply didn’t care all that much about this woman and what she was doing. “Victory, defeat, victory, defeat, victory, defeat,” goes a refrain in the novel (referring to the arc of tragic opera) and Chee takes on that structure here – but it all felt so constructed that I couldn’t really buy in, knowing as I did that there’d be another round soon enough. The NYT described it as “performance of alienation” and I have to agree: the novel was often alienating, keeping me at arm’s length, but it was doing so with some purpose behind it. Even as I was shrugging, I couldn’t help but wonder if that was to some extent Chee’s intention.
This is not to say that there aren’t extremely captivating portions of the novel. The scenes during the Siege of Paris and the Paris Commune are a small wonder unto themselves, depicting both the utter poverty of the city at the time and the senseless abandon of lovers in wartime. And, as the novel goes on, there are some delightfully insane moments that feel – as they should – ripped straight from the heights of the operatic tradition: the whirling Moulin Rouge-esque world of a high-class bordello, daring escapes in postal balloons, secret love nests hidden behind walls, and the most amazing murder I’ve maybe ever read, involving a spy’s barb of Prussic acid, a slit throat, and firebreathing. I’m delightfully stunned all over again just thinking about it.
But even these scenes don’t quite connect the way that they maybe should. There is a distance involved, a muting of effect that I can’t quite put my finger on. Opera is a tradition of grandiosity and saturation – so why does so much of this book feel like it’s been slapped with a muddying filter, leaving the colors dull and the peaks & valleys both flattened out? It’s not Chee’s actual writing, which is nimble enough to pull off flights of purple fancy and clipped emotional weightiness – but, perhaps, an unwieldiness of story. When phrases, whole phrases, are repeated in the space of a paragraph – not with the intent to compound their effect by their repetition but simply to repeat the same sentiment – and scenes run on until they putter to a stop, a reader can’t help but wonder about the book’s editor. There was a great novel here, but the dress – as curious a choice as the one Lilliet wears in the opening pages – obscures it. Would that, as with Lilliet, some dashing dukes had put the sword to that dress and given us the opportunity to see the story in another, more well-suited gown. But that sort of thing only happens in novels.
Rating: 3 out of 5. My love for opera was reinflamed by reading this book – I’d let it slip a little, in the wake of the passing of City Opera and Gotham Chamber Opera and the like – and, for that, I am immediately grateful. But I think my desire to see the great operas once more comes from the sense of this book having failed to deliver the beauty that I know can be found there. Opera can be hard to get into, admittedly, and this novel reminded me of the operas I’ve seen that I just… didn’t quite get into. The presentational nature of it kept me at arm’s length and I much prefer the ones that draw you in, giving a dash of reality (however heightened and surreal it might be) to the proceedings – whether opera or novel.