The Queen of the Night is full of historically-based characters, intrigue, mystery, romance and a continent-spanning story, years in the telling. It’s about a young woman with the voice of an angel who loses her family and home, only to persevere through war, myriad and various hardships and calamity to eventually become a star of the French opera. Personally, that’s a pretty compelling basis for a story, or at least that’s what I thought at the outset of Alexander Chee‘s drama.
Regrettably, TQotN is beset by numerous issues that Chee’s beautifully-descriptive prose simply isn’t able to assuage as the story progresses– well, ambles along would, frankly, be a more accurate description.
The year is 1882 and we are introduced to narrator Lilliet Berne, a falcon soprano opera star. The story that follows is put into motion by a writer who introduces himself as Frédéric Simonet, and who offers Mademoiselle Berne a book that, to the singer’s great dismay, details her very history, which she has struggled over the years to keep secret. Mlle Berne deduces that there are a finite number of individuals who could have helped Simonet, a complete stranger, create such an account, and she sets off on trying to discover whom that individual is. We learn that there are only four people (The Comtesse di Castiglione, the Tenor, friend Euphrosyne and composer Aristafeo) who could have assisted in the writing, and one of them has been dead for some time. Then, out of no where, Mlle Berne recalls a fifth person who could have a hand in Simonet’s novel, thus the reader has to go explore that unnecessary avenue, as well.
According to the Historical Notes at the end of the novel, Chee had been inspired by the tale of a nineteenth-century opera singer by the name of Jenny Lind, a.k.a. The Swedish Nightingale, although Chee admits that TQotN was only just vaguely inspired by her story. Some historical individuals do pop-up over the course of the book– composer Giuseppe Verdi, writer George Sand, Empress Eugénie (wife of Emperor Eugéne, or Napoleon III) and the enigmatic Comtesse di Castiglione— to add flavor an variety to the cast of characters, although they sometimes only prove to make the meandering story more cumbersome.
TQotN spans the mid-18th century to 1882. Her family falls ill and dies, so she decides to burn the farm house and head to Europe in hopes of finding some alleged family members in Lucerne. What follows is a plodding story that I had to put down and pick up with long intervals in between, and then eventually had to force myself finish it by about the halfway mark. I wanted to enjoy the book so badly, but it became a chore to read it.
Largely, the main character is dreadfully unimpressive. Despite everything she experiences she still seems milquetoast, and her reactions to her situations seem out-of-character for a mid-nineteenth-century provincial girl from the Midwest, which could be due to the fact that the story is written from a male perspective. Plus, Mlle Berne is not particularly cunning or otherwise engaging, and it simply feels as though a lot of her circumstances are simply that she’s in the right place at the right time.
Additionally, and quite aggravatingly, none of the dialogue is punctuated by quotation marks. From the outset of the novel, the main character experiences bouts of mutism, sometimes self-imposed, sometimes not, and this initially makes it difficult to discern when she’s thinking something or actually speaking.
On a bright note, many of the various characters’ outfits are quite beautifully described, although that is just not enough to carrying a nigh on 600-page book, even for a clothing fiend like me.
The Queen of the Night is available February 2nd, 2016.