The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee

As a historical romance novel, The Queen of the Night is engaging and serious. As literature in a historical setting, it is somewhat less appealing, though certainly interesting enough to provide some insights into the period – European high society in the late 19th century era of the Franco-Prussian War – and stir interest in the circumstances in which the central character finds herself caught up.  I would place it in the vein of two other historically set novels I’ve read recently – The Gangster by Clive Cussler, and The Rebel Queen by Michelle Moran, the latter of which is by far the best and the only one of the three I’d heartily recommend.

Like Cussler, Chee very effectively paints the historical landscape of his story.  Over the course of the novel, the main character moves from a small rural farmstead in Minnesota to the capitals of late nineteenth-century Europe, transforming plausibly, if a bit improbably, through the roles of farm girl, circus performer, prostitute, lady in waiting and renowned operatic prima donna.  Her eventual fame grows from the beauty of her rare Falcon soprano, and a recurrent theme throughout the novel plays on her occasional inability to use a normal speaking voice and her eventual preference of silence to avoid damaging her singing voice.

Lilliet Berne – the assumed name the main character eventually becomes known by – tells her story in something of a flashback style.  We first see her rejecting roles from Verdi and being presented with a mysterious novel that both aims to provide her the role of a lifetime and recalls events of her life she thinks could only come from someone in the vast range of characters from her eventful past.  In an effort to find the source, she wanders literally and mentally through the characters of her past, and we watch as she proves to be something of an agile escape artist, constantly freeing herself from one untenable circumstance only to become embroiled in another.  Along the way, she finds true love – or something that passes for it in her generally passionless life – but it becomes twisted in irony when, arriving back in the novel’s present, she makes one last escape that ultimately takes her full circle back to America and the circus life.

It’s an interesting, if not intriguing, story, and Berne is a curious, if not compelling, character.  One supposes that her undercurrent of austere diffidence is intended as some sort of product of the dehumanizing experiences she encounters in life. But taken as a whole, it’s hard to find her very believable – and definitely not sympathetic.  She moves from one intense and dramatic experience to another – including near starvation and war – and never seems to have any true passion or emotion about any of them, even though she is driven to some pretty remarkable (if also extremely cold) actions.

In short, like The Gangster, it was an engaging and realistic enough novel to pass some time with, but unlike The Rebel Queen, it wasn’t especially thought-provoking or moving.