Book review: Queen of the Night

Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee is a haunting, beautiful depiction of love, sex, theater and royalty in 1890s Europe. Published in February 2016, the text traces the life of Lillet Bern, an orphaned girl from the midwest of America with a beautiful voice — so beautiful, in fact, that her mother claimed the vanity in her voice to be impious. After tragedy strikes her family, Lillet travels to New York, joins a circus, and travels with the troupe to Europe.

Lillet’s story truly begins in Paris after she runs away from the circus troupe. To survive, she constantly transforms herself, from farm daughter to circus performer to prostitute to singer to maid to friend and even fiancé. Each experience has its own distinct plot and is populated by brilliantly developed characters, providing a detailed look into what life may have looked like in turn-of-the 19th century France.

Lillet’s career as an opera singer is a focus throughout the book, including the peak of her career when a composer offers her a role in a performance written specifically for her and her voice. The role is proposed after Lillet has studied for years of under one of Europe’s finest teachers and has gone on to earn fame and fortune. Her European life is a far cry from the bleak Minnesotan farm where she spent her childhood. As a singer, her voice is the rare “falcon” tone, a beautiful but fragile voice named after singer Maria-Cornélie Falcon, whose voice failed in the middle of a performance and never returned to its former splendor. Lillet’s  role promises to immortalize her as a star of the industry. However, when she reads the role, she discovers that the piece is based on dark pieces of her own past. There are only four people who could possibly have told her secret past: one who died, one who wants to own her,  one who loves her, and one who, she assumes, never thinks of her. The text weaves between past and present, filling in Lillet’s past as she tries to determine who could have exposed her secrets to the composer.

Additionally, her forays into prostitution, theater, and opera offer powerful commentary on era gender dynamics. Chee artfully describes a society where lovers’ games, fights, and alliances rule the political word. Women, without formalized political positions, exert power over royal and political men. As men visit elegant prostitution houses again and again, they are ecstatic to find their fantasies fulfilled, yet half-frightened that they will never again find someone to please them. Signals between parties are sent through dress and jewelry. The text gives voice to stories hidden behind  hierarchies of politics and gender, and, ultimately, is a thrilling, captivating read.