I thoroughly enjoy a novel that wanders a bit, particularly historical adventures like The Count of Monte Cristo or The Three Musketeers. I am also a sucker for stories of intrigue told from the secret garden at a masked ball or a hidden rooftop in Paris. It’s fantastical but delightful.
The Queen of Night has all the elements. The heroine is an opera singer, the toast of Paris society. She wears amazing gowns and blinding jewels. What no one knows is that she is an American orphan who has had numerous identities, including a lowly maid for Empress Eugenie before the fall of the Second Republic. Her self is defined by her voice — or lack thereof — as she spends years masquerading as a mute.
She travels Europe as a treasured guest and a fugitive in disguise. She fends off obsessive suitors and jealous countesses. She meets famous characters, including George Sand (In real life, Sand wrote a book called Leone Leoni in which one can recognize numerous similar scenes). The mysterious Comtesse de Castiglione, Verdi and Turgenev also make appearances.
From the opening:
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. He is perhaps a demon or a god in disguise, offering you a chance at either the fulfillment of a dream or a trap for the soul. A comic element — the soprano arrives in the wrong dress — and it decides her fate.
The year was 1882. The palace was the Luxembourg Palace; the ball the Senat Bal, held at the beginning of autumn. It was still wam, and so the garden was used as well. I was the soprano.
I was Lilliet Berne. ~Pg. 3
Despite all of these amazing elements, the book itself feels unfinished. Large portions in the midsection lag behind and miss the verve and energy of the early chapters. Often, it seems like something is about to happen but never does. It leaves the reader exhausted, but not enjoyably so — merely frustrated. Too many times Chee uses the formulaic tease that feels more at home in a listicle than a mature novel.
None of the agreements we’d made from before this letter were visible except in his insistence I return to Paris, the one only I knew of, the one that required me to be with him. Something had happened out of my sight, a cord pulled tightly where I’d expected it to go slack. I understood then that I knew nothing of what would happen next. ~Pg. 323
I acknowledge that the novel is meant to resemble an opera. It is supposed to be a bit melodramatic and unbelievable, and full of unlikely twists. At the same time, it should also grab you by the lapels and not let you go. The Queen of the Night doesn’t quite achieve that level of drama.
I wanted to love this book. I wanted to be swept away and have a 19th century book hangover when I was finished. There were moments but they were not sustained throughout. It’s good — it’s just not great.
Many thanks to HMH for the review copy.
Hardcover: 576 pages
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 1 edition (February 2, 2016)
Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.6 x 9 inches
2 thoughts on “REVIEW: QUEEN OF THE NIGHT by Alexander Chee”
Sad! And sort of what I feared, if I’m honest. I have heard so much love for this book and this author, and I badly wanted to like his first novel, and I badly wanted to like this one. But I didn’t like his first novel, and the excerpt I read of Queen of the Night on NPR or someplace just made me feel tired. Maybe if it had clearer punctuation?
The lack of quotation marks was distracting, though I got used to it. My real issue was with the plotting, or lack thereof. There were some incredibly rich scenes that felt very alive. And there were many that felt rushed or half-finished.