From its heroine’s first entrance, Alexander Chee’s The Queen of the Night grabbed me, sat me down in a plush red velvet seat, and kept me rapt as it writhed and contorted its way through 500 pages of love and murder, courtesans and empresses, fates and curses — and plenty of opera. A more impressive, richly imagined novel I have not read in many years.
You feel, as you read, that you are being swept away by this delicious plot and voice, and that the novel wants to be read slowly -- is actually smarter and deeper and more intricately constructed than can be appreciated at its decidedly propulsive pace.
That’s a lot of plot, and the unmasking of its 'secret architect,' who has been shaping Lilliet’s destiny since her brothel days, is regrettably anticlimactic. Chee’s novel will best please those who can enjoy its baroque complications without worrying unduly about plausibility, which is arguably a reasonable response to a text imbued with the extravagant ethos of opera.
The novel, in fact, takes a long while to get going, and it isn’t helped by Chee’s habit of needlessly repeating information he’s already given us. His attempts to fit the details of Lilliet’s life to operatic plots can be quite labored, especially early on ... Part opera, part soap opera, part romantic epic, part literary novel, the book is exhaustively researched and peppered with historical characters, including a warm and endearing Ivan Turgenev, who is awfully fond of Lilliet. Like her, though, The Queen of the Night doesn’t seem entirely to know what it wants to be.
While the novel is infused with an operatic sensibility, it doesn’t feel like an opera — there’s little transcendental magic or soaring tragedy ... But the story and the murky mystery within it take off in the fourth act, in a dark and hungry city devastated during the siege of Paris and the Commune. Here, the narrator’s dissociated voice is more suited to her horror at the corpses in the streets, the blood in the fountains.
Like Georges Bizet’s Carmen or Pamina in The Magic Flute, Lilliet is more persona than personality: her love is passionate but shallow, and her motives don’t stand up to scrutiny. It’s the ball gowns and roses, magic tricks and ruses, hubris and punishment that will keep the reader absorbed until the final aria, waiting to see whom fate will curse and whom it will avenge.
After pages and pages of Lilliet's speculation about the significance of the possibility of the chance that the meaning of (and so on), I came close to tearing my hair out in my own operatic fashion. And yet I was nonetheless mesmerized by Chee's portrait of Second Empire Paris at its glittering heights and in its bloody fall...
At a moment when attention and praise is lavished on novels like 10:04 and How Should A Person Be?, when it sometimes seems the struggle of Karl Ove Knausgaard sucks all the air out of the literary room, it’s rewarding to see a writer who made his reputation writing in a vein that many read as partly autobiographical sublimating his thoughts into the life of a radically different human being with gusto.
Alexander Chee details Queen’s reams of source material in the endnotes, and the richness of his research is evident on every page ... 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.
The sprawling result might not make for a perfect novel – it’s messy, convoluted, repetitive, and drawn out. And yet Queen undisputedly reigns as the grandiose, ostentatious opera it was meant to be: romance, betrayal, erotic fantasies, intrigue, espionage, murder, jealousy, bed-hopping, power, secrets, class, war, and even a balloon escape – all set to an opulent soundtrack that ranges from nonsense verses to sweeping arias.
Under the layers of plot and operatic melodrama, the constant scene changes and set pieces, Queen of the Night explores the question of what gives the courtesan her hold, her power over the hearts of men.
The urgency with which Chee has Liliet telling her tales, while continually creating a bait and switch narrative in which she yanks away knowledge at crucial moments only to come back to them later, keeps the reader off balance, racing through the pages without any possibility of stopping for fear of falling flat. It is that kind of novel, the kind one devours in a weekend or stays up too late reading.