The Queen of the Night
by Alexander Chee
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016. 561 pgs. Fiction.
The life of famed Falcon soprano Lilliet Berne has been one of reinvention. Beginning her life as a poor Minnesota farm girl, she transformed in turn into a circus equestrienne, a prostitute, an imperial seamstress, a courtesan, a spy, and finally an opera star. Only five people know the secrets of her past, so when she is offered a role in an opera that mirrors her own history, Lilliet must discover who has betrayed her.
For those who love a lot of period detail in their historical fiction, The Queen of the Night is a perfect choice. Chee provides lush descriptions of the clothing Lilliet wears, the operas she sings in, and the events of her day. Second Empire France comes alive in his narrative. I found Lilliet to be a surprisingly emotionally flat character, but I was nevertheless completely swept along in her story. This isn’t a book with a single, central conflict, but rather a winding story of Lillet’s Scarlett O’Hara-like determination to survive. Her experiences are completely improbable, perhaps in an echo of opera itself.
I also have to say that I love the cover of The Queen of the Night. Though it features a historic photograph of the Comtesse de Castiglione (who happens to figure prominently in the story), the dress, the pose, and especially the mask perfectly represent Lilliet Berne.