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.



Just Posted

Penticton ANAVETS members want information on club closure

Club members haven’t been told when, or if, their club will reopen

Penticton Vees Teddy Bear Toss night

Game is on Saturday at the South Okanagan Events Centre against the Nanaimo Clippers

Meet two of BC’s tiniest service pups

Medical therapy dogs changed Princeton woman’s life

Group to observe the winter solstice at Pen Henge

Public invited to ‘Pen Henge’ on Munson Mountain in Penticton

Kelowna-developed app brings static images to life

Maxogram links static images to video for a whole new take on marketing and information

Me Too At Work: Sexual assault and harassment in the B.C. workplace

Introducing an in-depth look at who is affected and what can be done

Canadians lag behind Americans in giving to charity

Only one-in-five Canadians donated to charities in 2017

B.C. children adoption rates lagging, despite increased funding: watchdog

More than 1,000 children children are still waiting to be adopted, new report shows

Hurdles ahead for Sicamous off-road vehicle bylaw

RCMP, ICBC and province not yet on-board with district

FortisBC to lower natural gas rates in 2018

Rate changes to impact the Lower Mainland, Kootenays, Interior and Vancouver Island

Visit with Santa amidst the Big White snow

Snow lovers can head up to Big White this month to visit with Santa

Four-month-old baby girl critically injured in Toronto

Baby, a man and a woman in serious condition

Google searches suggest 2017 a tough year

What were Canadians were curious about: Google searches suggest 2017 a tough year

Democrat wins stunning red-state Alabama Senate upset

Democrat Doug Jones wins stunning red-state Alabama Senate upset against Roy Moore

Most Read