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'The Queen of the Night' blends opera and mystery into a grandiose read

Loosely inspired by the life of opera singer Jenny Lind, Chee's new novel drips with romance, betrayal, intrigue, and espionage.

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The Queen of the Night
By Alexander Chee
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
576 pp.

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Fourteen-plus years after his Whiting Award-ed debut, “Edinburgh,” hit shelves in late 2001, literary social media-darling Alexander Chee returns with The Queen of the Night, in which another – albeit very different – soprano takes center stage. “Edinburgh” was a slim novel about a Korean American boy in a Maine boys choir who falls prey to the choir director; voluminous in comparison, “Queen” introduces a Midwest American teenaged orphan who transforms herself into one of Europe’s most lauded opera stars.

Chee’s sophomore title began, he explains in his “Historical Notes,” as a 1999 conversation on a New York City street with the late writer David Rakoff who shared “a long story about the opera singer Jenny Lind,” who Rakoff described as “a nineteenth-century Cher.” While Chee’s eponymous Queen of the Night “bears only the lightest resemblance to Jenny Lind,” his novel is pure opera, with all the over-the-top, larger-than-life machinations that make the dramatic medium such an obsession for its countless devotees.

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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,” Chee opens. “The year was 1882. The palace was the Luxembourg Palace; the ball, the Sénat Bal.… I was the soprano. I was Lilliet Berne.”

On that still-warm autumn evening, the stranger is Frédéric Simonet, a writer who approaches Lilliet with an “[i]ncredible” story about a young girl singer – “[t]hey called her the Settler’s Daughter, and she was said to have been rescued from the savages and able to sing only a single song her mother had taught her.” The girl performs originally in Canada, sings for Emperor Napoléon III who is so moved as to gift her a ruby brooch, and then vanishes seemingly forever into the Paris streets.

Simonet and an unnamed composer friend hope that Lilliet might agree to originate the role of the singer in their opera-to-be. “It would be a stupendous coup … and ensure the opera’s success,” Simonet insists. Innocently, he asks, “And you, well, who better for the Settler’s Daughter …?” Lilliet, as it turns out, “knew all about her.” Lilliet “had been her.”

As the only daughter in a Minnesota Methodist farming family, she was a tomboy with a blessed voice. When she fails her Bible test at church, her mother silences her prideful singing by gagging her; ironically, that ability to become mute will serve her well in the decades that follow. When typhus makes her an orphan, she heads east, reinventing herself again and again. She appropriates the name by which she will be best known – Lilliet Berne – from a three-year-old’s New York City gravestone before she crosses an ocean and eventually reaches Paris.

Set just before and after the fall of the Second French Empire, Chee’s heroine morphs through multiple identities – untrained maid, circus equestrienne, courtesan, mistress, prisoner, convent student, royal dresser, spy – to finally become an internationally renowned opera star. That her hidden, past lives are about to become a major public spectacle sets in motion Lilliet’s magnificent, almost-600-page search for whodunit.

Over five Acts, Chee reveals Lilliet’s many metamorphoses through her complicated, most intimate relationships with her self-proclaimed owner known always and only as “the tenor,” her first and single love, and a discarded royal mistress who perhaps wields the most power of them all. From role to role, Lilliet moves to the next tableau vivant – a popular form of 19-century entertainment, meaning “living picture” – reinventing herself at the whim and demands of ever-changing scenes.

“How many women are you?” her will-be lover asks. “A legion” Lilliet answers – from the Settler’s Daughter to Lilliet to Jou Jou to Sidonie, back to Lilliet. Dovetailed into all the fictions, Chee provides Lilliet a supporting cast of historical figures, from composer Giuseppe Verdi and his wife Giuseppina, singer Cora Pearl, the Comtesse de Castiglione, singer and teacher Pauline Viardot, novelist Ivan Turgenev, writer George Sand, and, of course, the Emperor Louis-Napoléon and his Empress Eugénie.

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The sprawling result might not make for a perfect novel – it’s messy, convoluted, repetitive, and drawn out. And yet “Queen” undisputedly reigns as the grandiose, ostentatious opera it was meant to be: romance, betrayal, erotic fantasies, intrigue, espionage, murder, jealousy, bed-hopping, power, secrets, class, war, and even a balloon escape – all set to an opulent soundtrack that ranges from nonsense verses to sweeping arias. Yes, if opera be the fruit of such epic love, what else can we readers do but read on.

Terry Hong writes BookDragon, a book blog for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.