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The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee
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The Queen of the Night (2016)

by Alexander Chee

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The Queen of the Night is the story of Lilliet Berne, a woman who went from being an orphan in the American Midwest to one of the most famous opera singers in France during the Second Empire (mid- to late-1800s). Very few know her whole story, and when someone threatens her with revealing her secrets, she does all she can to find who they are.

The story bounces back and forth between the Lilliet of the present and the Lilliet of the past. Along the way she lives many lives — of a traveling circus performer, a courtesan, a kept woman, an Empress’s maid, a famous opera singer. She is pulled into not only the intrigue of the opera, but the political intrigue surrounding the fall of Napoleon III. We learn about her life as she searches her past and tries to figure out who is threatening her with exposure.

I enjoyed this book, though I found it hard to follow at times. It often wasn’t clear which time period you were in until you got some context clues. Also, I completely lost track of how old she was at the different times of her life… I ended up thinking she should have been much older than she is supposed to be. It often wasn’t clear how much time had passed between one event and the next.

Also, Lilliet is a bit difficult to connect to. Though many tragic things happen to her, she often just picks up her skirts and moves on with nary an emotional response. Many people are left in her wake, and she just moves on with what appears to be little thought of how they may feel being left behind.

One thing I did appreciate is that the novel is structured much like a tragic opera, with emotional ups and downs. It’s a bit of a time investment, but I recommend this for anyone who likes historical fiction and a time period/area of interest that is a bit out of the ordinary.

“Victory, defeat, victory, defeat, victory, defeat. Such is tragedy.” ( )
  miyurose | Aug 3, 2018 |
An ever-changing identity is the centerpiece of Alexander Chee's The Queen of the Night. We're introduced to Lilliet Berne at the height of her fame as an operatic soprano in Paris in the 1870s. She's approached by a man who says he can give her the one honor that she hasn't attained so far: a role she can originate. The only snag is that the new opera is based on a novel that's clearly based on her own past, a past she thought she'd managed to escape from. There are only a handful of people who know her real life, and she determines to find out which one of them has betrayed her.

The book is a recounting of the story of her life, with one incredible circumstance leading directly into another: she grows up in frontier America and sets out to get to Switzerland, where she has relatives, once her entire family dies. In order to make it overseas, she joins a circus, from which she escapes to become a hippodrome rider, and then becomes a prostitute, and then a handmaid to the Empress of France, and finally an opera singer in training. She becomes an figure of obsession to a professional tenor and he dogs her steps, determined to possess her entirely, even while she tries to elude him and falls in love with another man. She does eventually find out who is behind the mysterious new opera and it seems for a while that she might even get a happy ending...but this is a story about opera, and operas don't usually have one of those.

If you read that plot outline and thought it sounds insane, you're right. IT'S BONKERS. But it's really good! I tend to be irritated by plots that require too many convenient contrivances, but with this book it's best to put logic aside and just enjoy the ride, because it is a fantastic, soapy trip that Chee takes us on. It's a bit on the long side, but it doesn't get bogged down anywhere...you might think that with the list of twists and turns that Lilliet's life takes, that it would feel cluttered or get hard to keep track of what was going on, but Chee is in control of his story and characters, and creates a vivid, lively world that was hard to tear myself away from.

This is one of those books that I kept promising myself I would stop at the end of the chapter to go to sleep, and was hard pressed to resist just one more after that before turning out the light. My one quibble would be that in a book full of evocative characters, Lilliet herself is a bit of a cipher. But, given the many shifts in her circumstances and role she is meant to play, too big of a personality wouldn't feel quite right either. Her most defining feature is her determination to survive...no matter what comes around the bend, she always manages to figure out a way to adapt and keep going. That's a powerful statement in and of itself. Overall, though, this is a very enjoyable read and I would heartily recommend it! ( )
  500books | May 22, 2018 |
The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee is one of those books that I should have fell in love with from the opening pages. From the synopsis it sounded to me like most everything I love about historical fiction. Sadly, I was disappointed.

Lilliet Berne is a famous Paris opera singer with a checked past. She has survived untold hardships to arrive at the place she is today. There are only a few people who know the whole truth of who Lilliet really is, a sum total of four, and it seems one of them is out to expose her. She knows this because a new opera has been written just for her, the crowning glory for an opera singer, and her life is the story. All her secrets will be exposed to the world.

Who would do this? As Lilliet works to find the answer to who the perpetrator is, she narrates her life for the benefit of the reader starting as a young girl growing up on a farm in Minnesota. Then how she tragically becomes an orphan and ends up in New York where she is hired as an equestrian acrobat and tours Europe which leads to being a courtesan and a spy, among other things, before her career as an opera singer even began.

The story suffered from several problems. First, the plot felt a bit over worked for my tastes. I like complex plots, when they make sense, but here it felt like the author was trying too hard. I think less would have been more here. Second, I never got the sense that I really understood Lilliet. The reader was told why she did what she did, etc. Yet, I never felt a deep connect to her and I missed that, badly. Then there were times the pace was so slow I struggled to get through it. I lost count of the number of times I had to just quit reading and pick up something else.

On to the good things, the writing was noteworthy. I love thoughtful descriptive prose and I got that here. I also liked the character of Lilliet, even though I was not totally taken with her. The author did a superb job of intertwining the real historical facts with the fiction. The overworked plot aside, over all I liked the story. It is unfortunate that the bad over shadowed the good.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy in a giveaway.

For more of my review, and author interviews, see my blog at www.thespineview.com. ( )
  purpledog | Nov 20, 2017 |
Actually had trouble finishing this one on audiobook. Ok, but just not that exciting. ( )
  Nlan | Oct 5, 2017 |
Intensely detailed and lavish storytelling. I'm only sorry that given so much intensity to tell her full story, the end came before her end. I would have been happy to follow her to the very end of her life. ( )
  lissabeth21 | Oct 3, 2017 |
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This novel is for D.S., who likes to write his initials in his books.
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When it began, it began as an opera would begin, in a palace, at a ball, in an encounter with a stranger who, you discover, has your fate in his hands.
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Book description
Lilliet Berne is a sensation of the Paris Opera, a legendary soprano with every accolade except an original role, every singer’s chance at immortality. When one is finally offered to her, she realizes with alarm that the libretto is based on a hidden piece of her past. Only four 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. 
 
As she mines her memories for clues, she recalls her life as an orphan who left the American frontier for Europe and was swept up into the glitzy, gritty world of Second Empire Paris. In order to survive, she transformed herself from hippodrome rider to courtesan, from empress’s maid to debut singer, all the while weaving a complicated web of romance, obligation, and political intrigue.
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Lilliet Berne is a sensation of the Paris Opera, a legendary soprano with every accolade except an original role, every singers' chance at immortality. When one is finally offered to her, she realizes with alarm that the libretto is based on a hidden piece of her past. Only four 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. As she mines her memories for clues, she recalls her life as an orphan who left the American frontier for Europe and was swept up into the glitzy, gritty world of Second Empire Paris. In order to survive, she transformed herself from hippodrome rider to courtesan, from empress's maid to debut singer, all the while weaving a complicated web of romance, obligation, and political intrigue.… (more)

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