With his second novel The Queen of the Night, a coming of age tale about the life, loves, and career of a self-made opera singer in late 19th-century Paris, Whiting Award winner Alexander Chee sets several ambitious challenges for himself: He’s going to write in an approachable way about a grandiose subject. He’s going to integrate fiction and fact, story and history, war and peace, high art and low, imaginary can-can dancers and actual empresses. And he’s going to keep a reader enthralled through 550 pages.
The result is a book that feels in many ways like Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, which exposes the hypocrisies of Victorian high society through the rise of gimlet-eyed, unsentimental social climber Becky Sharp. Like Sharp, Chee’s protagonist Lilliet Berne is a survivor. Born to and then tragically parted from a poor family in the American midwest, she uses intelligence, talent, sex appeal, deception, and every other tool in her arsenal to escape one grim situation after another until she finally arrives where she belongs: onstage, as one of the finest sopranos in Europe.
Unlike Sharp, though, Berne never assumes she will emerge unscathed. As she tells us early on, “the hubris was mine. And the gods did not kill for hubris—for hubris, they let you live long enough to learn.” She goes by many names over the course of these pages, including the Settler’s Daughter (as a circus performer), Jou-jou (as a sex worker in a high-end bordello), and La Generale (as a star). Yet she retains the fear that the gods will keep track of her, regardless of what she calls herself or where she hides, and that it is her fate to be punished in some dramatic, climactic way. Heroines of operas nearly always are. “Why,” she asks, “was there never an opera that ended with a soprano who was free?”
Despite her qualms, Berne is committed to living by her own lights. She refuses to succumb to anyone’s authority: she does not belong to the tenor who buys her freedom from the seraglio, or to the nuns who take her in when she flees the tenor, or to the monarch who employs her when she slips away from the nuns, or to any of the others who take her in and expect her allegiance in exchange. She does not even submit to the demands of her own talent. Though she is cautioned that she is a Falcon, meaning that her particular kind of voice is “among the most fragile,” she refuses to let it dictate what she can and cannot do.
Her voice may be fragile, but Berne is not and will not allow herself to be. And so, in many ways, the animating question of the epic remains how high Chee will allow his falcon to soar before yanking her back down. After all, where heroes are often celebrated for making bold, even rash, decisions, heroines of 19th-century novels are punished almost as frequently as sopranos. Throughout battles, famine, duels, betrayals, and the resonant horror that comes from wearing the wrong dress to an important occasion, much of the book’s tension comes from whether Chee, plainly fascinated by his ambitious and self-willed creation, will feel the need to humble Berne, especially as she takes greater and greater risks.
At times, Chee ratchets up the melodrama to an almost uncomfortable degree, and not all of his characters feel as complex and deserving of sympathy as our Generale. These are the kinds of quibbles some audience members have with opera itself: that it is fixated on grand themes at the expense of believable concerns; that it can feel broad and artificial, rather than subtle and incisive. But the deftness of Chee’s prose, as well as the generosity of spirit, carries the plot. Likewise, the culmination of The Queen of the Night, which is as delightful and unexpected as anything that precedes it, deserves several curtain calls. Chee has conjured up both a diva to remember and an ending that is worthy of her.