In Alexander Chee’s novel The Queen of the Night, Lilliet Berne is a renowned opera singer in Paris. She rose to fame from life as an orphan on the American frontier, remaking herself many times over, and she finally has an offer that will allow her to originate a role. The trouble is the role seems to be based on her very own past. The reader becomes transfixed as Lilliet unravels the mystery of who knows her like no one else does, or who may be trying to destroy not only the very career the new role promises, but Lilliet herself.
We meet Lilliet as a stranger approaches her and tells her of a role that has been written for her, a role that bears impossible parallels to her own past. She agrees to consider the role, and thus begins a series of journeys into Lilliet’s memories as she begins to puzzle out the person that might know so much of her, and be coming back to her after all this time: “Only four could have betrayed her: one is dead, one loves her, one wants to own her. And one, she hopes, never thinks of her at all.”
We learn much of Lilliet’s motley history as she endeavors to uncover the mystery: from the beginning, her life is a tangled web of invention, deception, ingenuity, and also obligation. Later, those aspects also couple with political games and connections to some of the highest levels of Parisian society.
All throughout, the constant is Lilliet’s beautiful voice, her “Falcon” soprano. It causes her trouble early in life with her mother, who said her beautiful singing voice had “gone to her head, and that will be trouble.” Then, for a time, Lilliet silences herself, believing her voice at fault for tragedies that befall her.
When she chooses silence, it begins to seem as though there are in fact two protagonists in the novel: Lilliet and her voice. However, as the novel continues, one could almost suggest that while Lilliet remains the protagonist, the antagonist is not the person who knows so much of her and her past; Lilliet’s prime antagonist may very well be the voice that is her livelihood, her pride, and the only thing that has ever truly been her own.
Chee’s novel draws some characters from history, and Lilliet is based on three real characters from history: two opera singers and one courtesan. The extensive research Chee did is evident, and his skill with spinning a tale is singular. Throughout operatic backstories and vivid descriptions of place and time, Chee weaves Lilliet’s arc: the story of fates she chooses and fates she doesn’t.
Lilliet Berne is a sensation of the Paris Opera, a legendary soprano with every accolade except an original role, every singer’s chance at immortality. When one is finally offered to her, she realizes with alarm that the libretto is based on a hidden piece of her past. Only four could have betrayed her: one is dead, one loves her, one wants to own her. And one, she hopes, never thinks of her at all.
As she mines her memories for clues, she recalls her life as an orphan who left the American frontier for Europe and was swept up into the glitzy, gritty world of Second Empire Paris. In order to survive, she transformed herself from hippodrome rider to courtesan, from empress’s maid to debut singer, all the while weaving a complicated web of romance, obligation, and political intrigue.
Featuring a cast of characters drawn from history, The Queen of the Night follows Lilliet as she moves ever closer to the truth behind the mysterious opera and the role that could secure her reputation — or destroy her with the secrets it reveals.