The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee. Houghtin Mifflin Harcourt, 2016. Hardcover. 561 pages.
I have so many feelings about this book, and it's been difficult for me to put my thoughts in words. This is a gorgeously written novel, but it is not without its detractors.
The Queen of the Night is a historical fiction novel set in the nineteenth century and centers on a young opera star, Lilliet Bern, who is offered a role in forthcoming opera. However, as she learns what the plot is for this upcoming role, she realizes that it is based upon her own past, and she knows of only three possible figures from her past that could have revealed this information. From this starting off point, we are taken through the journey of Lilliet's life through her own eyes as she relates the many circumstances in her life that have led her to where she currently is when the story begins.
The first and most noticeable aspect of this novel is the writing style. Chee uses a simplistic style with no quotation marks, as if Lilliet Bern herself is merely relating the story to us. This style is largely hit or miss for me usually, so I was immediately skeptical. Fortunately, Chee has such a unique, enchanting way with his prose that this style was a perfect fit. I can easily describe Chee's writing as simply gorgeous; it is filled with passion and breathes elegance, and it felt like I was reading a sweeping, epic beautiful tragedy - which, in a way, it is.
The plot is written in such a manner that makes this book hard to put down. I needed to know what else would occur in Lilliet's life - where she would go, who she would meet, what would happen. Chee is almost tantalizing in the way in which he entices the reader and gives out only certain bits of information at a time.
Now, as much I loved his writing and raved about it just moments ago, I also felt indifferent to it at times. The first three hundred or so pages of this book were compelling, but the charm started to wear off about two-thirds of the way through. There hit a point where it felt like the novel began to drag, and this point occurred when the war and political issues began to emerge in full force, pulled forward from their backdrop of much of the beginning of the novel. While I enjoyed the historical elements that were worked into the novel, Chee took it just a bit too far for me. He stopped focusing on the characters so much, and I felt very stuck in the book. Perhaps this was meant to reflect Lilliet's current situation in life - stuck where she was - but even so, it wasn't a highlight for me. Things began to be too convoluted, and because of the writing style, I actually started feeling slightly confused about what was going on. The narrator doesn't use distinct names or all characters, so that plus the lack of quotations occasionally left me questioning events of the book. By the end of the story, however, the pacing picked back up and I was once again enraptured in Chee's writing, so I was glad to end it on a high note.
This also leads me to touch briefly upon Lilliet's transitions between telling of her present situation and her past life story. I loved getting both parts of the story, and it worked really well for the plot and telling the story itself, but again, Chee was not exactly clear-cut about these distinctions and I sometimes felt as though I were floundering in the sea of unclear narrative.
And lastly, before I wrap up, I'd like to add in some opinions on the character of Lilliet herself, who was a rather enigmatic figure that truly seems to embody some interest feminine ideas that were likely not common during the time period of this book. I felt both connected and disconnected to Lilliet. She has wonderful insight and so many deep, personal reflections that let me feel as if I was truly getting to know her, but at the same time I still felt as if I wasn't let into every aspect of her life. Maybe Chee did that on purpose, but it just created an ever-present distance between Lilliet and myself, and it has left me feeling a lit unfulfilled.
Overall, I am giving The Queen of the Night for all of the reasons listed above. This is a truly enchanting and enthralling read, and I certainly recommend it for those who are ready to invest some time into this young opera star's life.
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