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The Queen of the Night Hardcover – February 2, 2016
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From the Publisher
A Conversation with Alexander Chee
Jami Attenberg talks to Alexander Chee about writing and researching The Queen of the Night.
is the author of a story collection, Instant Love, and four novels, The Kept Man, The Melting Season, The Middlesteins, and, most recently, Saint Mazie. She has contributed essays and criticism to the New York Times, Real Simple, Elle, the Washington Post, and many other publications. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.
JA: I loved your narrator, the opera singer Lilliet Berne! She was so sexy and unstoppable and led such a dramatic and interesting life. Can you tell me a little bit about the path to originally discovering her and her voice? Was she inspired by anyone?
AC: Thank you. The voice came early in the novel. I woke up one morning and she was in my head, saying “When the earth opens up under your feet, drop down, be like a seed.” The fortuneteller scene near the end. I got up, made coffee, wrote most of the pages that are now the novel’s end.
She was inspired by two real singers and one real courtesan. The first was Jenny Lind, “The Swedish Nightingale,” who quit the stage in 1850 and went on a two-year farewell tour of the United States, promoted by P. T. Barnum. The second, Maria Malibran, a wildly talented and beautiful young soprano who died after a singing duel with a rival. The last, Cäleste Vänard de Chabrillan, began as a courtesan and a hippodrome rider, before marrying her richest lover — who was then disinherited. She was ordered by the court to publish her memoirs to help pay off her debts, and then they were banned as obscene. She became a novelist and eventually lived in a house near Bizet’s in the countryside, and is said to be the inspiration for the character of Carmen.
JA: I can’t help but wonder how deep you went with your research. Did you spend countless hours listening to opera? Everything is so ornate and picturesque in this book, the dresses, the rooms, the jewels. Tell us about uncovering those details.
AC: I listened to operas while writing the novel and while researching it. Mostly, though, it all felt like one long strange trail through the woods. I started with a biography of Giuseppe Verdi, which led me to his wife Giuseppina’s beautiful letters, which led to their story, and so on. So it was a bit of “Find this opera, look at who wrote it, read about the composer, look at the original cast, discover any stories about the singers lives or the productions.” I needed the details biographers and historians usually don’t use except to refer to them in footnotes; and so I read into the footnotes, and used the bibliographies of the first texts I found, and then kept going.
I also went to Paris several times and toured the novel’s locations, sometimes taking video so as to refer to it later. Paris also has many amazing small museums devoted to all of these historical life details, almost as if they want people to come and write novels. One favorite trip was to Compiègne to see a show of the Empress Eugénie’s clothes on mannequins throughout the palace. It felt like they did it just for me.
JA: Your book is peppered with fictionalized versions of real-life people like the writers George Sand and Ivan Turgenev. When you write historical fiction, you have to figure out how to balance fiction and fact. Did you have any strategies for this?
AC: I learned a lot just in trying to write about Sand and Turgenev. I tried initially to write them as characters in a way that was too careful. It went better once I began inventing first and fact-checking second. And so, after all that research, I finally understood the best way to get close to them was, while imagining them, to be a little disrespectful — to be too respectful to them would mean to miss portraying them believably. It wasn’t just that you had to get the facts right — you had to bring them to life. This was also the best way for balancing the fact and fiction in the whole novel.
JA: The Queen of the Night starts in small-town America and moves to New York City and then to various French locales. How important is setting in this book?
AC: Very. The places of the novel, each of them essentially teaches her what she needs to be next, which I think is true for us all. She just takes it a lot further. I see the novel as one American woman’s long adventure in Europe, reinventing herself on her way as she tries to find a place in this world that will feel more at home to her than the place she started out.
JA: And finally, you wrote an utterly convincing novel from a female perspective. What did it take for you to get inside a woman’s head?
AC: That’s a huge compliment coming from you. I don’t know. I feel like she convinced me of who she was first. From the beginning, she felt so real and I was just learning who she was. I listened to her much the way I have with the women in my life. I was the son who listened to my mom’s stories, the big brother my sister confided in, the gay best friend who listens to his girlfriends’ woes. Lilliet was not so different from them. But with her I wrote it down and tried to figure it out.
New York Times Editor's Choice
A Best Book of the Year fromNPR,Esquire, Self, The Boston Globe, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Portland Mercury, Jezebel, Time Out NY, Buzzfeed, Vox.com, Refinery 29, Electric Literature, LitHub, Entropy, The Morning News, and theFinancial Times
An Indie Next Pick
One of the Most Anticipated Titles of 2016 by Entertainment Weekly, Wired, Refinery29, Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, BBC, Bustle, The Millions, Flavorwire, Book Riot, Brooklyn Magazine, and Bookish.
A Guardian Best Book of the Summer
"The Queen of the Night joins Tipping the Velvet and The Crimson Petal and the White as the rare historical novel in which the setting may be old, but the writing makes everything feel brand new. Alexander Chee has written a subversive, sexy epic about a young American girl who struggles more than her fans will ever understand on her way to eventually become a highly celebrated soprano at the Paris Opera House. Lillet Berne's dramatic rise to success is all the more exciting because of all the wonderful details Chee includes about her life in the late 19th century. The descriptions of her dresses alone are worth the price of this book, and Chee's knowledge about opera is such that you can almost hear the music when reading his words. But for all the research and historical detail, in the end, it's a love story, as so many of the most excellent books are."--Esquire
“The novel is infused with an operatic sensibility…The Queen of the Night is a celebration of these women of creativity, ingenuity, endurance, mastery and grace—a gala in their honor.” —Kelly Gardiner, New York Times
“Epic…Brilliantly extravagant in its twists and turns and its wide-ranging cast of character.” —Julia Felsenthal, Vogue
“[An] extravagant five-act grand opera of a novel…Chee’s writing is cultured and confident, and the elite society he depicts is dazzling…Readers willing to submit to the spell of this glittering, luxuriantly paced novel will find that it rewards their attention, from its opening mysteries to its satisfying full-circle finale.” —Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal
"A sweeping, richly detailed historical novel about a young woman's tumultuous trajectory from circus rider to renowned soprano at the Paris Opera." —Kim Hubbard, People
“An opera of the page, complete with seduction, hidden identity, betrayal and plenty of costume changes…It’s the ball gowns and roses, magic tricks and ruses, hubris and punishment that will keep the reader absorbed until the final aria.” —Sarah Begley, Time
“Gorgeous prose...Extraordinarily beautiful and dramatic, a brilliant performance.” —Wendy Smith, Washington Post
“[A] postmodern bodice ripper…It just sounds terrific. It sounds like opera…It offers a rare, intriguing psychology: the heart as a buried place, where someone is hiding, singing—words you can’t quite hear.” —Joan Acocella, The New Yorker
"[A] wild opera of a novel…Swift, smart, immersive, and gorgeous." —Garth Greenwell, The Guardian
“If Lilliet Berne were a man, she might have been what 19th-century novels would call a swashbuckler: the kind of destiny-courting, death-defying character who finds intrigue and peril (and somehow, always, a fantastic pair of pantaloons) around every corner…The richness of [Chee’s] research is evident on every page. Paris’ glittering swirl of artists, artistocrats, and underworld habitués lives vividly in his descriptions.” —Leah Greenblatt, Entertainment Weekly
"Despite the nineteenth-century setting, the story couldn’t be more appropriate for the Age of Kardashian—a masterful look at transformation and its unforeseen aftershocks." —Nathan Smith, Wired
“The Queen of the Night tackles the fate of history, women’s sexuality, and the inner lives of forgotten courtesans who wielded power at a time when women were often powerless. The intricate ways Chee renders this past reveals so much about our present day.” —Tanwi Nandini Islam, Elle
“Vivid, glittering…A spellbinding story of intrigue and self-reinvention." —Jarry Lee, Buzzfeed
“With a hint of the charm of Victorian erotica, a marvelously involute plot and a whiff of the circus in the American grain… Chee has leaped to another scale altogether…Here, that voice, a rare instance of a fairy-tale first person, is at once fabulous in its simplicity and intimate in its specificity, making the story seem historical, mythic and at the same time deeply personal.” —Ellen Akins, Los Angeles Times
"Enchants." —US Weekly
“Operatically elaborate, enthralling…A bit like Verdi’s La Forza del Destino in its twists and turns…Chee does an excellent job of making the world of 19th-century opera—an art form that continues to struggle with the perception that it is not fun—lively and fascinating and louche.” —Spencer Lenfield, Slate
"A lush, imaginative novel, one that you’ll hope never ends." —Claire Luchette, Travel and Leisure
"Queen of the Night joins Tipping the Velvet and The Crimson Petal and the White as the rare historical novel in which the setting may be old, but the writing makes everything feel brand new…A subversive, sexy epic." —Maris Kreizman, Esquire
“A multi-stranded, thoroughly researched epic." —Joe Fassler, The Atlantic
“The Queen of the Night is an astonishing universe into which its lucky readers can dissolve completely, metamorphosing alongside its shapeshifting protagonist. Lilliet Berne steals her name from a gravestone and launches into a life of full-throated song; her voice is an intoxicant, and this book is a glorious performance. Chee's enveloping, seductive prose is perfectly matched to the circus world of the opera.” —Karen Russell
"A luminous tale of power and passion. Chee gives us an unforgettable heroine and a rich cast of characters—many of them real historical figures. The story dazzles and surprises right up until the final page." —J. Courtney Sullivan
“One doesn't so much read Alexander Chee’s The Queen of the Night as one is bewitched by it. Beneath its epic sweep, gorgeous language, and haunting details is the most elemental, and eternal, of narratives: that of the necessities and perils of self-reinvention, and the sorrow and giddiness of aspiring to a life of artistic transcendence.” —Hanya Yanagihara
"Alexander Chee packs his extraordinary second novel, The Queen of the Night, to the seams with music, love, misery, and secrets. The kind of book—world—characters—you could live inside, happily, for days and days and never once want to come up for air." —Kelly Link
“A night at an opera you'll wish never-ending.” —Helen Oyeyemi
“Queen is as operative as its shape-shifting narrator…This is classical, full-throated melodrama, not so much a meditation as an aria on fate.” —Boris Kachka, New York
“Triumphant…Chock full of romance, intrigue, and sprinklings of real history, The Queen of the Night is the first truly epic novel of the year.” —Jeva Lange, The Week
“Sweeping, historical, and baroque…Glittering.” —Constance Grady, Vox
“While the book does owe much to the extravagant spirit of mid-19th-century novels and operas, it pays its debt with grace. It is wonderfully free of the faintly smirking self-consciousness and knowingness that so often attends such ventures. It works on its own terms, boldly.” —Katherine A. Powers, Newsday
“Queen joins ranks with the best historical novels and made me think, not infrequently as I read, of one of my all-time favorites—E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime.” —Sonya Chung, The Millions
"A fantasia set in a world of opera, dance halls and the court intrigues of Second Empire Paris." —Trisha Collopy, Minneapolis Star-Tribune
“The urgency with which Chee has Lilliet telling her tales…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.” —Ilana Masad, Electric Literature
“Impossibly deep and lyrical…You’ll be hard-pressed to find a more complete reading experience this year.” —Jonathan Sturgeon, Flavorwire
“Epic and gorgeous…It’s a tale of glamour, glitter, secrets, and intrigue.” —Lincoln Michel, Men’s Journal
“A sprawling and operatic novel.” —Jane Hu, The Awl
“Remarkable…Reading this book is deeply pleasurable, and its incorporation of historical detail feels seamless…It has all the trappings of the period: the artifice, the meticulously researched details, but at its heart is the story of a woman, lost, in love, and singing in the dark.” —Natalie Bakopoulos, San Francisco Chronicle
“Sprawling and dramatic…Plotted with baroque intricacy.” —Nicholas Mancusi, BOMB Magazine
“A brilliant bright star of a book…A dizzying, delightful carousel ride through traveling circus troupes, harrowing prison escapes, the pleasure dens of courtesans, and an Empress’s palace wardrobe that would make Lady Gaga’s look basic…The Queen of the Night is a soaring falcon.” —Tabitha Blankenbiller, Bustle
“A fabulous sage of an indomitable woman…It’s like going to a grand opera; or reading Proust. Take your pick.” —Thomas Urquhart, Portland Press Herald
“A singular and powerful novel…It’s plot is gripping…but it’s also a fascinating look at art, isolation, and acclaim.” —Tobias Carroll, Vol. 1 Brooklyn
“A grand, impeccably researched rollercoaster of a picaresque…The Queen of the Night unleashes the kind of thrill found only when you hear the voiceless sing.” —John H. Maher, Entropy
"The Queen of the Night is a radical act of art-making…Quite simply, it’s a very intricate devotion to character and story, to believing in what an act of language can become." —Carrie Lorig, Arts Atlanta
"Chee’s lush and sweeping second novel uses a strikingly different setting from Edinburgh, his accomplished debut, but shares its musical themes and boldness...Chee’s voice, at once dreamy and dramatic, never falters; Lilliet’s cycle of reinventions is a moving meditation on the transformative power of fate, art, time, and sheer survival." —Publishers Weekly
"Chee makes a bright, bold leap into the bright, bold world of Second Empire Paris with a book inspired by opera singer Jenny Lind." —Library Journal, pre-pub announcement
"A mesmerizing novel." —Booklist
"Life as opera: the intrigues and passions of a star soprano in 19th-century Paris...Richly researched, ornately plotted, this story demands, and repays, close attention." —Kirkus, STARRED
"A completely engrossing work that should appeal to the widest range of readers, especially those with a taste for historical fiction." —Library Journal, STARRED review
From the Inside Flap
Lilliet Berne is a sensation of the Paris Opera, a legendary soprano with every accolade except an original rolea singers chance at immortality. When one is finally offered to her, she realizes with alarm that the libretto is based on a secret from her past she thought long buried. Only four people could have betrayed her: one is dead, one loves her, one wants to own her. And one, she hopes, never thinks of her at all.
The answer may come from her past. Orphaned as a child, she left the American frontier for Europe and was swept into the glamour and the terror of Second Empire Paris. In order to survive, she transformed herself from hippodrome rider to courtesan, from empresss maid to debut singer, weaving a complicated web of romance, obligation, and political intrigue in her wake.
With a myriad of upending twists and a rich cast of characters drawn from history, The Queen of the Night follows Lilliet as she moves ever closer to the truth behind the mysterious opera and the role that could secure her reputationor destroy her with the secrets it reveals.
Top customer reviews
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For, you see.
This is one of those books written in many short sentences.
And many short paragraphs.
Like this one.
It is very difficult to establish a sense of rhythm in reading.
Or sentence fragments, like this one.
Constantly interrupt the flow of the narrative.
You see what I mean?
So, my advice is.
That you reread Cather’s "The Song of the Lark," which is a story somewhat like this one. Or (yes, sometimes paragraphs consist of more than one sentence) a good biography of Jenny Lind.
And save this book for those people.
Who like short sentences.
And sentence fragments.
I’m just not one of them.
Hope you understand.
"Queen of the Night" takes places in late 19th-century frontier America and early 20th-century Europe (Paris and a few other cities). It's an operatic story full of plot twists, unbelievable story contrivances, beautiful custom ball gowns, spies, dazzling jewels, as well as handsome and cruel leading men. It's a historical novel that mixes real events within a rich fantasy.
Much of our discussion unpacked some of the historical events, which all seem pretty true (again, remembering that they're interpreted as fantasy), based on real events and characters with Wikipedia pages. It's helpful to know about Napoleon III, the Franco-Prussian war, and the Paris Commune but not essential -- and if you don't know anything, you'll learn a bit. Other parts of our discussion revolved around opera, which once again seemed true. Similarly, it's helpful to know a little about opera plots, opera singers, and the opera "fach" system, but the book gives enough information to keep you informed. You'd better enjoy descriptions of gowns and jewels, which are threaded throughout the novel.
The biggest discussion centered on the language. The novel is very well reviewed and many of us wanted to like but had a hard time. Everyone thought that it needed an editor to cut it down to size. Several readers stopped reading after a few chapters and others after 100 pages. Chee's style is often too verbose. A number of readers thought it was poorly written. Those of us who plowed through were interested in the story and the outcome but I don't think that anybody felt compelled to finish it.
I enjoyed reading "The Queen of the Night," but when I put the book down I had to remind myself "I'd better finish this." I was never compelled to read another chapter or get to the end. I thought some individual scenes and occurrences were spectacular (like arias in an opera) but then followed by pages of drivel (like much of the emotive and silly repetition that drives me crazy in opera). It's sort of the opposite of "a page turner." Having said that, the ending is very satisfying although perhaps (once again) over written.
A few observations:
-- Sometimes the language in the book is so dense that I found it difficult to read very carefully. And the narrator-diva's self-analysis and meditations are often tedious and not helpful in advancing the plot or the character.
-- Chee is a gay author but there's only very minor gay content in the novel (unlike his only previous novel "Edinburgh"). But opera seems "gay" and there's something about this story and diva that seems to give the novel a gay sensibility. Maybe it's all the gowns and jewels.
-- The action in the novel is often romantic, fantastic, and soap-opera-ish, much like opera plots. The plot is episodic. Characters often seem thin or poorly defined, and motivations are often hard to discern. A couple of times I lost track of why something was going on. The psychology of the opera-singer narrator is sometimes hard to understand.
-- One of the problems of the psychology of the narrator might be that she never really knows herself. Her sense of self-preservation is strong but she seems unaware of who she really is. She's often just a diva wearing fabulous gowns and jewels. (Uh huh, I mentioned fabulous gowns and jewels again.)