Armchair Book Club: Pomp and circumstance with The Queen of the Night

Heather Allen explores The Queen of the Night following the fictional life of soprano Lillet Berne, who dominates the 1870s stage.

I go to the opera for the music, the fine costumes, the emotion, but not usually for the plot. The same can be said of reading Alexander Chee’s latest novel The Queen of the Night, which follows the fictional life of soprano Lilliet Berne, who dominates the Parisian stage of the 1870s.

Lilliet is an orphan from a Minnesota farm who manages to become a circus act — a settler’s daughter who can shoot, sing and perform acrobatics on horseback. With her circus troupe, she makes her way to Paris. The book’s evertwisting plot is often overblown and stretches believability, which seems appropriate for the subject. In fact, the plot is loosely based on that of the opera The Magic Flute.

The Queen of the Night is stuffed with historical cameos, reminding me of the current trend in Hollywood blockbusters. How many famous people can one director throw into a single movie? But then, opera singers of the day were rather on the same level as today’s Hollywood stars.

Still, what are the chances that an orphan girl would get picked out for special notice by the emperor, become the special spy for a comtesse, and brush shoulders with Giuseppe Verdi? Lilliet starts to feel like the Forrest Gump of this historical fiction.

I’ve grown a bit leery of the adage: Write about what you know. I prefer the less limiting advice: Write about what interests you. But The Queen of the Night doesn’t really back up my preference. In fact, I wonder if Chee may have strayed a bit far from his centre of knowledge.

I found descriptions of a teenager’s inner anxiety when pressed to enter into a life of prostitution lacking sincere emotion, and many of Chee’s descriptions of the physical experience of singing also fell flat. If only Chee could have described Lilliet’s inner turmoil and her music with the same precision and enthusiasm as he did the outrageously extravagant and expensive jewels and dresses of the day.

Like the multiple layers of the complicated dresses they wore, the themes, plot and characters come in a dizzying array in this novel. Chee’s plot graph, while writing the book, must have covered an entire room.

In the end though, these are minor quibbles. Chee animates an exciting time in Parisian history, sweeping through the halls of Emperor Napoleon III, the Prussian siege, the overthrow of the emperor, and the bloody Paris Commune. The reader can’t help but be pulled along in Lilliet’s struggle to maintain her social status, ever on the verge of plunging back into her former destitute life.

Like any opera with a few questionable turns, The Queen of the Night is still a magical spectacle worth taking in.