A Decadent, Historical Soap Opera
Author: Alexander Chee
Combining the audacious scandal of the opera world with the high life of Second Empire Paris, Alexander Chee’s Queen of the Night is a story of rising falcon soprano Lilliet Berne. Lilliet is both an escape artist and an expert in transformation. Morphing from a poor farmer’s daughter in America to a French singing sensation requires a brutal, and often surprising path, one from circus performer, to courtesan, to bought woman, to death, to life again as a spy, and so much more until the woman presented to the world has metamorphosed into something unrecognizable. In the end, Lilliet herself doesn’t fully understand who she is or the impulses, some romantic and some violent, that threaten her oddly covert yet public life.
It begins with a curse, supposedly from God, and ends with a precarious fame threatened by an opera created just for Lilliet – one that reveals the abominable backstory of her hush-hush life. Only four people know the truth of Lilliet’s passage – where she came from and what she did. One of those people is dead. Which of the surviving three has chosen now for revenge and why? As Lilliet seeks answers from the living, the ashes of the past stir leading readers through an epic of desire, war, tainted love, and the frailty of disguise.
Similar in scope to a fancy soap opera, Queen of the Night makes no bones about being overly grand and dramatic. At first, this seems off-putting. How can we ever sympathize with a character who rolls from the zenith of love to the nadir of despair and hate with little to no provocation? And what of all this circus performer business leading to the eventual creation of an opera paragon? Yet, for the ridiculousness that mocks instead of mimics real life, the sensationalism and all out bawdy gossip of the novel draws readers lustily into the fray. We are here for the ride and while we acknowledge that this story is in and of itself a soap opera with pretentions, we actually enjoy the very overwrought nature of its existential crises from love to ownership and back again.
Lilliet (not her real name!) begins the narrative as a confused child and so there is little surprise when her character fails to grow, instead becoming a confused adult. Lilliet is not one to learn from her mistakes or to even introspect, despite the aura of the novel’s perfect hindsight. Lilliet simply lives in the moment like a flame that burns bright, scorching those nearest, disappearing only to transform into some other equally dangerous and uncontainable elemental. While Lilliet talks of eternal love with all the final imagery of circuses and angels turning in their wings, it’s clear that the characters are only flesh deep, more in love with the drama than with the equally facile people that surround them. Because of this, we don’t care about the cast but about the drama, the sheer scope of selfish moodiness that, when done correctly, can lead to a gossipy sort of story with the thrilling nature of all cheap, superficial things. It’s here that we have the tie-in to a soap opera, the sort of guilty read that appeals to our baseness and the vicarious escape through a character who’s moral code dictates self-preservation and pleasure above all else.
Take this flamboyant living and combine the historical pomp of the depicted time. Even if you are not a history buff or are like me and not especially literate in non-American history, the glittering intrigue of emperors and empresses, empires poised to fall, and looming revolution and war adds another dimension to the already theatrical tale. Now you have invading armies, starvation, and clever ploys executed by bitter ex-lovers that converge as Lilliet tries to save herself and still experience a grand, destructive love affair in the midst of chaos. Add in luxurious depictions of the clothes, the jewels, and the general opulence of the time and you have a novel meant to appeal to the senses – and one that succeeds.
Queen of the Night is not a story that I will long remember or even necessarily come back to, yet it was enjoyable. Its intentions, despite the ostentation, are simply to be delightfully scandalous and wildly gratuitous. As the plot unwinds and Lilliet tracks her dissolution to the final player in this tale of love and revenge, we have murder and revelation, high feelings and quick escapes, one more transformation before the loss of what has been espoused as most wanted. We are both satisfied and enraged. The love that all was worth sacrificing for is ultimately discarded – the reasons somewhat vague; yet, the tormented nature of the story and its twisted sense of sadness combined with an outward success fits with the nature of everything that has gone before. Unbelievable and yet something we follow willingly, overdramatic and yet satisfying in a gritty sort of way, interesting for its combination of facts and fiction, uninhibited for its overarching scope and page count. Chee produces a soap opera in the format of a book and we enjoy it for both everything it dares and everything it overdoes.
– Frances Carden
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