book reviews by Althea

The Queen of the Night – Alexander Chee ****

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The Queen of the Night
The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As the curtain opens, Lilliet Berne is a celebrity opera singer at the peak of her career. Her greatest worry is that her haute couture dress by Worth might be the tiniest bit out of sync with the fashion. However, when she’s approached by a novelist with a proposition, suddenly a new concern arises. On the face of it, the proposition is extremely flattering: the writer is working with an up-and-coming composer to create an opera from his novel, and he’d like Lilliet to originate the starring role. The problem? The story mirrors Lilliet’s own life in a disconcerting way – and Lilliet has skeletons in her closet that she thought long buried.

The story flashes back as Lilliet thinks back and gradually reveals those past secrets, wondering who might have discovered them and what their motivation might be. Threat? Blackmail? Or something more subtle and obscure?

Lilliet’s storied and complex life is a rags-to-riches tale, from her humble beginnings as an orphaned American frontier girl, to even humbler stints as a ‘working’ girl… continuing on through any number of situations, as Lilliet’s superlative voice, her theatrical talent, and her willingness to seize opportunity by the horns allow her to climb the social ladder more than once. Honestly, the story is more than a bit preposterous and utterly unbelievable. The melodrama of it all intentionally echoes an opera itself (the author says he was influenced by ‘The Magic Flute,’ although the connection is loose-to-tenuous). However, even in the sections that strain credulity (the balloon escape!), it’s great fun. And although the plot events may not be grittily realistic, the book as a whole is wonderfully well-researched. The setting really comes to life, and it’s chock-full of interesting tidbits of information about music, fashion, and life around the time of the French Revolution.

The pace is rather slow and deliberate, but although the book felt long, I also enjoyed every page of it, and was sorry when it was over.

Many thanks to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and Netgalley for the opportunity to read. As always, my opinion is solely my own.

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